Before the two-and-a-half-hour “long” version of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Volume I debuted yesterday at the Berlin Film Festival, we wondered what sort of material hadn't made it into the Von Trier–approved shorter version, which screened at Sundance and has already opened in a handful of European countries. (A limited U.S. release will begin March 21.) Twenty-eight minutes of something had been cut. Obviously, some of it was going to be sexual, explicitly so. But they couldn’t possibly have cut a half-hour consisting solely of flaccid penises and O-faces and Shia LaBeouf ravenously performing cunnilingus — could they? What else was missing?
“It’s not like it’s another story,” producer Louise Vesth told a room of journalists (after she and Christian Slater had scooched over to fill in the empty seat left behind by LaBeouf’s mid-conference freak-out), when asked about the artistic differences between the short and long versions. “It’s just kind of all of the material that Lars wanted to use from the shooting. And therefore you will have a deeper feeling of the topics discussed in the film.”
Like what? We weren't able to ask Von Trier, who vowed to never do his own press again after his 2011 Cannes fiasco and therefore sat out the conference. (He did show up for the photo shoot, however, during which he opened his jacket to reveal a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “persona non grata” and the Cannes logo, igniting a frenzied mass-tweeting among everyone present.) Fortunately, we did make it to the premiere —which ended with the director being coaxed onto the stage by furious applause—and while his cut wasn’t incredibly different from the shorter version, there were some significant differences. Here are the main ones:
Yes, a lot of explicit sex was cut.
Giant disembodied penises being pleasured by tongues; vivid, massive megaclose-ups of pink vulvas, which filled the entire screen to the point that it reached a level of abstraction — these are just a few of the graphic images that were cut.
But not all explicit sex is gratuitous.
In both versions, the married man to whom Young Joe (Staci Martin), the titular nympho, gives a blow job — even though he begs her not to — climaxes passionately in her mouth. In the short version, we see the man's O-face, then cut right to Young Joe wiping semen from her lips; in the long version, we see the actual orgasm, complete with spurting penis. The man had been storing up his sperm for weeks in order to ensure its potency, as he was hoping to impregnate his wife; allowing us to witness this graphic, vulnerable moment highlights our sense of him losing something that is precious to him, and of Young Joe taking it from him. Who would have thought a little splooge could make such a big difference?
LaBeouf went deeper. (Maybe.)
Things got more intimate between Young Joe and her deflowerer/love interest Jerôme (LaBeouf). At one point, Young Joe commands Jerôme to “fill all my holes,” and we see him go at her from behind with his fingers. Were those really his fingers, though? Since most of the sexual images, including all of the genitals in the film, were supplied by professional porn stars and digitally added during postproduction, we can't really be sure.
Even the unborn were doing it.
The “long version” gave us a black-and-white sonogram image of a fetus, in utero, fondling what seemed like a jumbo fetal phallus. This accompanied an explanation by Stellan Skarsgard’s character that "even fetuses masturbate." (For Michael Burgess’s sake, we almost wish they’d kept this one in.)
Then there were the funny, disgusting jokes.
In both versions of the film, Joe and her blonde wild-child friend B put on slutty outfits and board a train to engage in a who-can-fuck-more-men competition. Joe fellates the aforementioned well-to-do man in first class; afterwards, we see her on the train platform enjoying a bag of “chocolate sweets” she’d won. What didn’t make the cut, though, was Skarsgard’s great comment about how the flavor combination of “chocolate and sperm” must have contributed to Young Joe's euphoria. Too gross?
But some of the material had hardly anything to do with sex.
Surprisingly, not all of the scenes that got axed were about giant labia, butt play, and seminophagia — in fact, a lot of what was cut for the shorter version was character-related. We get to know Joe a lot better in the long version; as a young adult, she’s given more lines and more gestures. A conversation about morphine dosing between Young Joe and her dying father's physician was sad and moving.
So how come these seemingly innocuous and important character-establishing details also wound up on the cutting-room floor? We suspect it’s because the film’s excessive sexual content, and what percentage of screen time that content occupies, is a huge part of what makes the film what it is. The graphic imagery isn’t just an accompaniment to the story — it is the story. And the ratio has to be perfect; cut sex, and other stuff’s gotta get axed, too. Character development and anal fingering deserve equal screen time, after all.