If the 2014 festival circuit were a contest — and why shouldn’t it be, since these lofty-minded sprocket operas pit the directors whose work they screen in competition against one another? — then the Venice film festival emerges the winner. That will come as sacrilege to some, who consider Cannes the undisputed titan among international film showcases. And it may baffle the Oscar-obsessed, who look to Telluride and Toronto for indications of what will win Academy Awards.
This year, the litmus test came down to which fest would land the director’s cut of Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac.” And Venice scored the coup, programming the 5-hour-and-25-minute atom bomb of a movie amid a lineup that included stellar new films from Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Birdman”), Roy Andersson (“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”), Ramin Bahrani (“99 Homes”) and Larry Clark (whose “The Smell of Us” is like a French “Kids”).
Yes, Sundance snuck the theatrical version of “Nymphomaniac” as a last-minute addition, and Berlin teased the “bigger, longer and uncut” version — as my colleague Scott Foundas described here — by unveiling a half-hour-longer version of Part 1 in February. But there remained still an entire hour of footage unseen, including the single most upsetting sequence this critic has ever witnessed, and the victor would be whoever brought this controversial film before the world in its entirety. In the end, it wasn’t Cannes, where von Trier remains persona non grata after his 2012 Nazi-related remarks, but Venice that won out.
When the press first learned that von Trier had been pressured to trim nearly 90 minutes of footage for release, imaginations raced as to what might have been so scandalous as to be excluded. At Berlin, we learned that, apart from a few graphic penetration shots, nearly all of the omitted footage came from the surrounding dialogue between self-proclaimed nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her intellectual interrogator, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), making the talky film, already quite humorous, even denser and more amusing.
So what could Part 2 possibly add, we wondered, except perhaps more spanking? (Which, of course, it does.) Come to find, rather than simply padding what had previously been there, von Trier restores a high-impact subplot in which Joe performs her own abortion with sterilized needles and no anesthetic — by far its most confrontational sequence and an indispensible (if nearly unwatchable) key to understanding the film overall.
The sequence occurs at nearly the midway point of Part 2, roughly a year after Joe walked out on Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and her son on Christmas Eve. As we know, she left her family for one last session with the sadist, K (Jamie Bell), finally capturing her elusive orgasm. Back on the horse, as it were, Joe has stopped taking her birth control pills out of a crippling fear of getting pregnant.
Prior to this, Seligman has been a patient and sympathetic listener, forgiving her worst transgressions with rationalizations based on philosophy and literature. “You have yet to show me one single example of maliciousness,” he tells her, to which a frustrated Joe responds, “That’s all I’m doing. It’s as if you deliberately want to misunderstand me!”
Joe has already erased from her conscience the existence of her family when she learns that she is carrying another child. Von Trier joins her mid-sonogram in the doctor’s examination room, where she is bothered by the sound of the heartbeat coming from the monitor, asking him politely if he might turn it down. “If you look at the screen, you can see a child. But I can’t tell you the gender yet,” the doctor says. Without a moment’s moral hesitation, Joe asks the doctor to terminate the 11-week pregnancy: “I don’t give a shit about the gender. I want it removed!”
Following procedure, the doctor refers her to a counselor, whose prying questions offend her:
Counselor: Did you love the father?
Joe: That’s none of your business.
Counselor: Well, it is my business, because I’m here to form an impression of the circumstances. That’s my job.
Joe: OK, so what would you most like me to answer about the father in order to get a fucking abortion: that I love him, or that I don’t love him, or that I don’t know him, because I fucked tons of men?
Over the years, von Trier has been accused of misogyny, and even in its shorter form, “Nymphomaniac” directly addresses this criticism, not only by focusing so directly on cultural taboos about sexual promiscuity, pleasure and desire from the female perspective of Joe’s character, but also by examining how little her virginal male inquisitor could possibly understand of her experience. The latter has been a key rhetorical position in the abortion rights debate over the years, and one that von Trier dismantles directly in this restored sequence, which not coincidentally occurs in the chapter called “The Mirror” (whose dual meaning, we now learn in another freshly restored bit, is also the term for the face through which light passes in a perfectly cut diamond).
But first, von Trier exposes us to a nearly unbearable sequence in which Joe administers her own abortion using “the common medical procedure that I had learned whilst studying medicine, as it was of great importance for me to get the fetus out straightaway, rather than wait for it to be expelled a couple of days later.” In graphic detail, accompanied by Joe’s whimpers and screams of discomfort, we see the long, sharp instruments enter a vagina. But rather than leave the grisly details up to our imagination, von Trier cuts to a X-ray-like cross-section, forcing us to witness as the fetus is pulled violently from her uterus, then cutting back to the room where it is expelled, bloody and still breathing between her legs.
I mentioned earlier how amusing “Nymphomaniac” frequently is as a film. While not an outright comedy, it frequently invites laughter as a way of disarming the tension around subjects so infrequently discussed in polite company. The abortion sequence comes as a rude awakening — not unlike the later scene, preserved in both versions of Part 2, where Joe feels a profound connection toward the repressed pedophile (previously the film’s most psychologically uncomfortable scene) — because of its dead seriousness in a film that otherwise makes light of difficult subjects.
Audiences have been laughing off and on for an hour and a half when von Trier introduces Joe’s abortion. During the Venice screening, some clued in to the tonal shift faster than others, and there were many walk-outs over the course of this scene (which, I should add, is a perfectly reasonable response). After all, von Trier is being deliberately provocative — as he is with the entire film — but here, by presenting a scenario in which Joe’s pursuit of carnal pleasure directly results in ending the life of her unborn child (so soon after walking out on her “born child,” no less), he’s bringing a complex moral dimension into the equation. If the rest of the movie can be seen as a frontal assault on whatever lingering barriers exist in global society designed to deny and repress the female orgasm, then this scene shifts the conversation from sexual empowerment to social responsibility. It also anticipates her later attempt to murder Jerome in the alley — the only other time she attempts to take a life.
Still, other movies have been equally unflinching in how they dealt with the subject of abortion. For example, the exceptional Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” makes it impossible to overlook the gravity of performing an illegal, late-term abortion by showing the fetus after it has been removed. Tony Kaye includes footage of an actual abortion in his tough yet fair documentary “Lake of Fire.” And, in some sort of perverse pro-choice metaphor served up as entertainment spectacle, Noomi Rapace prevents aliens from using her uterus to incubate a monster in “Prometheus.”
But none of these scenes packs quite the power that Joe’s abortion does in “Nymphomaniac,” serving as a platform for intellectual debate at the same time it questions the conceit that rationality can possibly apply to the topic at all. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine that von Trier allowed a version of the film to be released without this sequence intact, and it’s a sign of the overall programming integrity at Venice that, as incendiary as it is, the world finally had a chance to engage with the full film.
Immediately following the onscreen abortion, a long dialogue occurs between Joe and Seligman. At first, Joe’s listener sits in stunned silence. “Say something,” she provokes. “You always have so many clever things to say.”
Seligman immediately starts to make excuses: “I feel bad for you that you had to cause yourself so much pain. But the abortion is completely understandable,” he says. “I’m a big proponent for abortion rights, but this is 100% female territory. I don’t believe a man can ever comprehend the situation or the pain, and when it comes to the method, I think the less said, the better.”
Instead of accepting his pseudo-respectful response, Joe challenges him: “Those are two very interesting points of view. First you say that as a man, you can’t understand a woman’s feelings with regard to abortion. Well, that’s a bit like saying I couldn’t understand the victims of earthquakes because they were Chinese. I thought we agreed that empathy was the foundation of all humanism, but I can see that it’s very convenient for men to leave all that abortion stuff to women, that way they don’t have to deal with the guilt, nor all the small stuff. But your other remark provokes me even more. You think my method is not worth discussing?”
Seligman goes on to suggest that “the lurid details about how a fetus is removed” are not only distasteful, but potentially unfit for public consumption.
Joe challenges his objection, likening it to the argument that carnivores must be aware of how animals are slaughtered in order to eat them — a fact most meat-eaters suppress when sitting down to a meal (and one von Trier rather sadistically illustrates by showing cattle being killed in a processing plant, pushing the envelope further by including several “Faces of Death”-worthy bits of fatal news footage).
“Well, you sound like a pro-lifer from Texas,” Seligman quips — which, of course, couldn’t be farther from the way Joe sounds.
“I don’t think so,” she retorts. “First of all, I’m just as much pro-choice as you are. But on principle, I believe that taboos are damaging for human beings.”
Now, getting tough, Seligman observes, “I don’t want to belittle anything, but I can’t see your abortion as anything but a luxury problem. … The really serious, serious abortions, the ones that save lives far from our social circumstances, you can’t endanger them just because you provocatively insist on showing the gory details. Consider all the millions of oppressed women, the victims of rape and incest, hunger, all those who maybe thanks to abortion, have regained a new life, maybe saved a child from starving to death. You can’t harm them, just because of some principle of openness.”
But Joe — and by extension, von Tries — is determined to provoke. She ignores his “luxury problem” remark and goes on to describe a special instrument, nicknamed a “nutcracker,” which von Trier illustrates by flashing back to Joe in medical school. The instructor holds up a metal tool that looks like something out of David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers,” describing how the pincer-shaped implement is used: inserted into the cervical channel to extract the fetus, where it crushes the skull in order to make removal easier.
“This is not something I need to know,” Seligman says, earning nervous laughs an audience desperately seeking some tension relief.
“Oh, I hope you’re not going to be an opponent of abortion based on that,” she teases.
“No, but you have to think of the outrage this knowledge would create in society,” he says.
“So you’re saying that people in general are too stupid to make decisions on an informed basis?” she challenges. “Whether we talk about abortion or not, you can’t escape death. And my fetus could have turned out to be a fine human being, but one that would also eventually die. What haunts me is the ironic detail that my father and I were snail gatherers. We had the deepest compassion, not to say sentimentality, about the smallest living things on the planet, which we demonstrated by saving snails, often by the way, the same size as my fetus, from certain death on the path.”
And with that, von Trier flashes back to a scene of young Joe and her father (Christian Slater) rescuing snails in their garden, inviting still more humor back into the discussion. (I’d like to clarify at this moment an unclearly worded — and unfortunately misleading — remark in my original review of the film, where I concluded a list of taboo topics handled in Part 2 with “most outrageously, a mixed-race three-way.” Some readers mistook this to be moral outrage or racism, as Gawker and Sex.com interpreted it, though I was merely trying to indicate the fact that von Trier scene presents this scene for some of the film’s biggest laughs, in which Joe is seen, framed by two erect penises, unable to unable to communicate when her two lovers’ begin arguing among themselves in an unspecified African dialect. In the theatrical version, the disagreement gets in the way of an actual sex scene, whereas in the director’s cut, von Trier includes a graphic double-penetration sex scene — though I’ll leave the matter of its outrageousness up to you.)
At any rate, this was my first year attending the Venice film festival, so it’s difficult for me to say whether it was an especially strong or weak year. Certainly, any year in which the full “Nymphomaniac” is unveiled must be taken seriously. As for the rest of the lineup, even the disappointments — like Abel Ferrara’s ambitious yet impenetrable “Pasolini” and, increasingly compromised the more I unpack it, Andrew Niccol’s too-pat look at the morality of modern warfare, “Good Kill” — represent admirable choices in a culturally significant festival program.
In my estimation, Golden Lion winner “Pigeon” and the unfortunately snubbed “Birdman” were better than any of the films in this year’s Cannes competition, where the prize went to the longest, but not necessarily the best film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep.” (The same happened at Locarno, where the jury laureled Lav Diaz’s five-hour “From What Is Before.”) But with “Nymphomaniac,” size does matter. The, ahem, circumscribed version shown in theaters simply wasn’t the same film without Joe’s abortion intact. It took nerve to give this film the platform Venice did — to say nothing of the gall required to make it — and for that, the Lido takes the lead.