A festive afternoon with Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

Friday December 20th 2013

Earlier this week, under cover of mild fog, I took the tube down to the Curzon Soho in Central London for a very special event, scheduled to begin at midday and run on until the streets outside would be thick with evening commuters. That’s right: Tuesday saw the UK’s first ever screening of Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier’s wildly hyped, blogosphere straddling, hugely anticipated, gorgeously promoted new four-hour sex epic.

A special area had been cordoned off within the cinema, and inside, the great and good of Britain’s press, distribution, exhibition and PR industries had gathered, eagerly chomping down unusual pastries in preparation for the colossal task that lay ahead. I made idle chitchat in an attempt to suppress my overexcitement and then, having made the difficult and ultimately unwise decision to invest £4.75 in a large box of Curzon popcorn, I made my way into the auditorium and took a seat.

Since crossing the North Sea last week, Nymphomaniac has been stripped of the ‘Not Endorsed by Lars von Trier’ disclaimer that preceded each of its Copenhagen press screenings, but nonetheless there’s an odd sense of futility in knowing that the film you’re about to watch lacks more than a quarter of its director’s initial vision. Inevitably the unabridged cut will eventually be declared fit for public consumption (at least 50% will be shown at the Berlin Film Festival next year) in which case this shortened edition is perhaps Lars’s attempt at a practical joke — if critics are reluctant to sit through four hours of this shit, imagine how they’ll feel after a cumulative nine.

Whatever the case, this bite-size, 240-minute odyssey into one woman’s sexual identity is more or less an unqualified triumph. From the word go, Nymphomaniac is so utterly saturated with ideas — be they visual, thematic, symbolic, or unashamedly pornographic — that it’s nigh on impossible to get bored. Volume One alone features a woman masturbating with a set square, an aspect ratio shift, Shia LaBeouf’s cock, Christian Slater and a wipe transition. It’s the Movie 43 of art house sex films, complete with the requisite Uma Thurman cameo. And forget what you’ve read in every broadsheet review from here to Xan Brooks: it’s sexy as fuck.

Tuesday’s screening was interrupted at the two-hour mark by an intermission, during which I cornered someone from Artifical Eye and asked them what their plans were for the film’s release. There have been so many adjustments to Nymphomaniac‘s distribution strategy over the months and years that nobody seems entirely sure of how it’ll ultimately be seen by audiences, or whether Lars will ever get his full, unexpurgated cut into the open. Initial plans for the release of two five-and-a-half-hour films, one hardcore and one soft, have been entirely abandoned. Nonetheless, what Artificial Eye have got planned for March sounds like it’ll make the best of a situation that’s far from ideal for Von Trier diehards.

Perhaps hoping to insulate the audience against the coming onslaught, cinema staff were also giving out shots of some unknown intoxicant as guests returned to their seats. I foolhardily drank three and immediately felt impossibly wasted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first ten minutes of Volume Two remain a little fuzzy, although I do remember Udo Kier repeatedly saying the line, ‘were you not given any spoons?’

Like Kill Bill (again, Uma Thurman provides a handy bridge between Nymphomaniac and each of its pop cultural forebears) the film divides its volumes both chronologically and tonally. If the first part is the raucous house party, the second part is the strangely satisfying discomfort of the hangover. If Volume One is the one night stand, Volume Two is the odd dichotomy of the morning after. It’s after the intermission, for instance, that we see Shia LaBeouf grow into this guy:

Luckily, Volume Two is also where the film comes completely into its own. Nymphomaniac expresses a countless number of ideas that have hitherto felt almost entirely unrepresented in popular culture, and does so with an effortlessness that seems to chide other, lesser films for not getting there first. Everything from the practicalities of double penetration, to the unlikely heroism of pedophilia, to the inherent slut shaming of so-called sex addiction treatment, is given due consideration here, and in a week that’s also seen the release of Beyoncé’s spectacular new feminist opus BEYONCÉ, Christmas has come early for women who like having sex and dislike being thought of as the devil’s spawn for doing so.

At the same time, Nymphomaniac is far from an exercise in easy liberal validation. For every moment I spent mentally deifying Lars von Trier for his artistic bravery, I spent another wriggling uncomfortably in my seat. For every instance I felt my hands spontaneously drawn together as if to applaud, there was another in which I felt physically queasy.

When the film finally came to an end, survivors gathered in the lobby, huddled around mugs of mulled wine and locked in fierce debate. Such a scene will no doubt be replicated in foyers across the UK come March, as cinema managers struggle to get audiences in and out of their seats in time for each mammoth showing, and audience members who’ve already witnessed the spectacle struggle to make sense of life after Nymphomaniac.