Why Was Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” Released in Two Parts (And Why is it So Long)?


By breaking up his epically long Nymphomaniac (2013) into two separate films, Danish director Lars von Trier might be riding the recent wave of commercially successful trilogies that expand a one-feature script into a whole cycle (think The Hobbit or The Hunger Games). Except in Von Trier’s case, he’s doing for the ‘Euro-art’ circuit what the studios are trying to do for big blockbuster franchises. Surely, amidst contemporary European auteurs, the Dane is the most likely to pull off such a marketing coup. But does he spread himself too thin by breaking up what could have been one film into several installments to maximize his profit?

The two volumes of Nymphomaniac very much stand as one block (and were initially supposed to be released as just that): there is no real dramatic shift between the two films. The first film, which ends in a most anticlimactic fashion (pun intended), merely carries into the second film in a logical progression without fanfare or heightened escalation of plot. There is a certain logic and intellectual integrity, however, beyond the potential dollars to be earned, to breaking up the film in two, something suggested, furthermore, by the way the film’s title is actually spelled in the credits sequence: Nymph()Maniac.

The first part focuses on the ‘Nymph’ stage and has a correspondingly more playful and comedic tone than the second part. The film’s protagonist and narrator of her own misfortunes, Joe, is played as an adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg throughout both films, but she is also impersonated by a variety of younger actresses (most notably model Stacy Martin) in the flashback sections. Correspondingly, the episodes appearing in the first film display a greater amount of levity and humor than those in the second part.

The second part (the ‘Maniac’ phase), while equally ironic, involves more darkness, violence and even outright atrocities, especially in the scene where the lead character undertakes (and succeeds at) self-performed abortion. This scene (only available in the director’s cut, currently streaming on Netflix) is excruciatingly painful to watch, by any standard, and nothing in the first part really prepares one for this spectacle of bodily degradation.

The ‘Nymph’ section (the first part), as the name indicates, focuses thus on youth, on growing up, discovering; while the ‘Maniac’ section (the second part) looks at the moment when life enters a downward spiral, when the body starts to ache and decay, and when physical pleasure seems more and more difficult to attain. In this, the two films seem to reference the two moments in Von Trier’s own career, marked by a mid-life crisis and severe depression, followed since by works (all featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg, as the world-weary, melancholy icon) of an undeniably darker tenor, yet never deprived of the director’s trademark irreverent creativity and playfulness: Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011) and this latest two-in-one-opus—which constitute the so-called ‘Depression Trilogy’ (an echo, no doubt, to Ingmar Bergman’s equally dark ‘silence of God’ trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963)).

The viewer also will notice that Nymphomaniac is not only divided into two films, but also into chapters (eight to be exact), giving it the episodic structure of a novel. This is nothing new to Von Trier’s fans. Most of his films adopt an episodic structure. But this film particularly, the longest the Dane has made to date (except The Kingdom TV mini-series), clocking in at a total of 5 hours (for the director’s cut), with long dialogues between two characters, almost entirely set in a barren room, combines the novel and film in very interesting, and sometimes highly innovative ways. As a result, Nymphomaniac can be watched in two widely divergent ways which have grown in currency through online, on-demand viewing practice: (1) binge watching, absorbing the whole of Nymphomaniac part one and two at once, performing thereby almost as much violence and brutality upon themselves as the main character does, experiencing at once jouissance, queasiness and ennui; or, (2) episodic watching over the course of repeated viewings (say, in 40 min increments), like a novel, where its subtleties can emerge.