'Nymphomaniac' is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who is discovered badly beaten in an alley by an older bachelor, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her into his home. As he tends to her wounds, she recounts the erotic story of her adolescence and young-adulthood (portrayed in flashback by newcomer Stacy Martin).
In my review of the theatrical cut of Nymphomaniac, I mentioned that it was not likely a movie (or movies, as even this 'Extended Director's Cut' remains separated into two distinct volumes) I would have a desire to sit through again, unless the Director's Cut made its way to Blu-ray. Well, thanks a lot, Magnolia. With roughly 80 more minutes of footage to sit through across the two films (and nothing cut from the original – at least nothing that I could remember), viewers now have the option to watch this longer, more hardcore version of the film(s), although there's little in terms of storytelling or plot different from the shorter cut.
The story revolves around a woman named Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg in the 'present', but played by Stacy Martin in about half of the movie's flashbacks), who is found beaten and bruised in an alley by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as Vol. I of this two-volume set gets underway. Joe refuses to go to the hospital, so Seligman takes her back to his place to nurse her back to health. While recovering, Joe begins to tell him the stories of all her past sexual encounters, which are broken up into titled chapters and make up the majority of both Vol. I and Vol. II.
Joe's flashback stories in Vol. I include how she lost her virginity to a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), whom she'll later become much more involved with; one where she and a friend have a contest to see how many men they can be with sexually on a train trip (winner gets a bag of sweets); and a black and white one that details how her father (Christian Slater) passed away. All of the Vol. I flashbacks have Stacy Martin playing a young Joe. In Vol. II, Charlotte Gainsbourg gets the bulk of the screentime, as flashbacks show a darker period in her sexual desire, as she seeks out the company of an African American (and, to her surprise, his brother) in one of the movie's chapters, then starts to explore sadomasochism in another.
What makes 'Nymphomaniac' both rather odd and occasionally darkly humorous is Seligman's reaction to all the stories that Joe is telling him. While Joe is a character whose very existence seems to stem from and revolve around her sexual explorations, Seligman is the complete opposite – an older man who has never been in a serious relationship and whose knowledge of the world comes almost exclusively from the books he has read. Therefore, every time Joe tells him about an aspect of her life, Seligman makes a correlation with something he's learned from his reading – starting with fishing when Joe tells her first story, but also covering mathematics, music, and science as both volumes proceed.
Of course, what message Von Trier is trying to deliver in 'Nymphomaniac' is largely left up for the viewer to decide. I'm assuming it's no coincidence that, for all the sexual adventures that Joe has in the movie, all of them are ones that she seeks out on her own and is a willing participant in. Von Trier also goes out of his way to portray Joe's father (which just might be the best supporting performance in the movie) as a kind and decent man, so as not to suggest that there was anything about Joe's upbringing that caused her to turn out the way that she did. Again, it's worth noting that there's nothing overtly erotic about 'Nymphomaniac', but that doesn't mean it's not a quite watchable movie. Unless one is highly offended by seeing the genitalia of both sexes on screen (and even moreso in this extended cut), there's actually very little here of 'shock' value.
One thing did bother me about the film(s), and that's the way in which Von Trier chose to wrap things up. I won't spoil the ending for those who have a desire to watch it, but I will say that the ending of Vol. II has one of the characters acting in a way that seems diametrically opposed to the way they conducted themselves up until this point in the movie(s). I suppose that could also be a deliberate statement about the nature of people that Von Trier is trying to convey, but it feels like a rather weak and cheap way to provide an ending to his story.
This being the 'Extended Director's Cut', you're probably wondering what the big differences are between the two versions. Well, it's perhaps no surprise that the most obvious changes have to do with the sex scenes. While the theatrical version pushed the edges of how close to pornography a mainstream movie could get, there's actually full penetration in his version, as well as a whole lot more instances of both male and female genitalia. The rest of the new footage merely seems to be longer versions of scenes already in the first cut…a few more lines of dialogue here and/or an extended scene there. The most significant non-sexual additions are more footage dealing with the death of Joe's father in Vol. I, and scenes involving a self-induced abortion that Joe graphically performs on herself in Vol. II. The abortion footage is, for my tastes, the hardest to sit through of any of the scenes in the Extended Director's Cut.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II' arrives on Blu-ray in a eco-friendly Elite keepcase that houses Vol. I on the inside left and Vol. II on the inside right. Both discs are 50GB dual-layer Blu-rays. Both Vol. I and Vol. II are front-loaded with trailers for 'White Bird in a Blizzard', 'The Two Faces of January', Filth, plus an ad for AXS TV. The main menu consists of a montage of stills of the actors (primarily promotional photos), with either an occasional flash of red (for Vol. I) or pink (for Vol. II). Menu selections run down the left side of the screen.
The Blu-ray has been encoded for Region A only.
According to the information I could gather searching the Internet, both volumes of 'Nymphomaniac' were shot digitally, using primarily Arri Alexa cameras. However, even though the film was shot digitally, each segment of the movie (which is broken up into titled chapters as Joe talks about her past to Seligman) has very much its own distinct look. The scenes set in the present with Joe and Seligman have a slight grain to them that looks very much like film, while most of the scenes in the past involving a younger Joe have a much sharper look to them. The chapter that has the sharpest, most digital-like look to it is actually the black and white footage that takes place in Vol. I, while the grainiest of the footage (which almost looks like 16mm film) takes place in Vol. II, when Joe's character meets up with a character played by Willem Dafoe.
Because most of the chapters in the two volumes change their look from the prior ones, there's often a huge change in terms of detail, clarity and sharpness to what one is viewing. I didn't see 'Nymphomaniac' in the theaters, but I'm assuming that what we're seeing on Blu-ray is a pretty accurate rendering of what the film looked like in theaters. That said, much of the movie is rather drab looking, and even the sharply detailed scenes show a lack of color and 'pop' to them, giving them a very (and most likely intentional) sterile look.
One of the biggest complaints about the Region A release of the theatrical version of 'Nymphomanic' was that Chapter 4 of Vol. I – featuring scenes with an angry wife played by Uma Thurman – was shown at the incorrect aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (as is the rest of the movie), although those scenes were originally shot (and shown in theaters) at the 1.85:1 ratio. Well, I'm happy to report that issue has been corrected on this version, and Chapter 4 has been returned to its proper aspect ratio – although it's within the 2.35:1 area, which gives the footage a 'window-boxed' appearance on one's TV screen (see our screenshot of Uma below).
The only audio option here is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which is rather unspectacular, although it manages to be free of any noticeable glitches and renders its dialogue (all of it from up front) rather crisply. There's little, if any, noticeable directionality in the track, nor is there much use of low-end frequency. The rear speakers are active, but only apparently so when the soundtrack (no original score here, just a combination of classic music and modern rock) kicks in.
If one disregards the sex scenes in the movie, the vast majority of both volumes of 'Nymphomanic' is primarily characters talking to one another, which means there's not a whole lot of activity for this lossless track. Of course, this lack of activity has to do with the movie itself and not any issues with the track, so it can be fairly stated that the audio here is quite representative of how the movie should sound.
Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
'Nymphomaniac' remains something I don't think most viewers will want to sit through more than once (although I did), so the big question is if you should take a look at the shorter version or this longer director's cut. Assuming one doesn't have a problem with a touch of hardcore visuals and plenty of R-Rated nudity (and if you're considering watching a movie called 'Nymphomaniac', I'm guessing the answer is more or less 'no'), I think this extended version is the way to go. It provides a more complete version of Lars Von Trier's vision. However, if you've already seen the shorter cut, there's not much additional story here (although there is a lot of extensions of scenes) and you probably won't get much out of this longer version. Like the theatrical cut, this one's worth a look…but probably just one look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.