There’s one thing someone should’ve said to Lars Von Trier, and not just before he made his latest film, Nymphomaniac. This should’ve been said to little pre-pubescent Lars, who undoubtedly amused and entertained grown-ups with his cleverness: you’re not as funny as you think you are. Like its director, Nymphomaniac is a film which seems […]

There’s one thing someone should’ve said to Lars Von Trier, and not just before he made his latest film, Nymphomaniac. This should’ve been said to little pre-pubescent Lars, who undoubtedly amused and entertained grown-ups with his cleverness: you’re not as funny as you think you are.

Like its director, Nymphomaniac is a film which seems to think it’s a lot of things – among them, funny – but it’s not. I thought long, but not very hard, whether I should watch it at all, let alone write about it. His utterly pointless Antichrist (2009) still casts a long shadow and running at four hours, I wasn’t sure I could afford the commitment. Yet the film had already found its way to these pages, as it served as a template for a previous dissection of the current nature and matter of hype (NT#66).

As devised by its production company, the almost year-long online campaign to stimulate interest and to titillate the senses turned out to be just like the film itself: only good in theory. What it did, in fact, was to expose the film’s unevenness and, worse, the director’s increasingly blatant cinematic weaknesses. In a smart manipulation of film forums and social media, they released a sneak preview of each of the film’s chapters every month in a countdown to the premiere. Amidst the patchiness of aesthetics, tone and intention was what seemed to be a gem: a glimpse into Chapter 7, entitled ‘The Mirror’.

As someone who takes Cinema and its history seriously, I cringed at yet another reference to the finest filmmaker that ever lived, Andrei Tarkovsky, but the content did surprise me. In brief, we find the titular nymphomaniac, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, collecting an array of objects from her clinical apartment, padding and covering up every potentially phallic part of every single appliance, painting a mirror white to eradicate reflections and lying inert over a bare mattress.

The understanding of the cinematic potential of the character’s circumstances seemed remarkable and brought to mind Von Trier’s once impressive incisiveness. But that, together with a well-edited official trailer, were to become nothing but unfulfilled promises in what turned out to be an long and hopelessly weak film.

Ahead of its release, Nymphomaniac continued to tease and tickle both camps – for and against Von Trier – in equal measure. Rumours of two versions (hard and softcore) being released turned into confirmation of the split into two separate films, followed by the news that Von Trier had given up his five and a half hour edit of the film in favour of the more commercially-accepted overall length of four hours. Although the so-called Director’s Cut will emerge eventually, the version presently available bears his name and should be acknowledged for what it is.

For all the talk of visual effects placing the faces of actors onto their porn doubles, which may or may not materialise in that longer version, the current cut of Nymphomaniac soon achieved one of its aims: divisive opinions amidst the critical sphere. Some jumped on the apparent unapologetic feminism at the core of the film and have used it to validate it. Others can’t get over the fact that for an over-hyped film about sex, there’s not that much of it in sight.

So what is actually wrong with it? The aforementioned Filmreel reference to the film noted that “the only truly commendable quality of Nymphomaniac is its…identification with Von Trier’s finest trait: not caring in the slightest for what we think.” Having seen it, I can now say that for something which appears not to care, the film does try, desperately and throughout, to convince us. The intellectual interactions between the protagonists are a constant attempt to underline ideas evoked in each chapter. But it gets worse than that when this underlining tries to be visual and, I suspect, humorous. The verbal is often made visual in a way that is so literal that it effectively kills the point, annihilating our opportunity to make it personal for ourselves, as a good book would.

And that’s problem number two, right there. For a film which takes a literary structure, Nymphomaniac is too literal. Whilst sections of the dialogue flow well enough through some great acting, the constant trivia and self-analysis – which hints perhaps at a vague, but never fully realised, post-modernistic angle – results in the most contrived of narrative devices.

But there’s more. Self-reference is only interesting if it helps a given film in some capacity. Here, it’s used either out of arrogance – the distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic being an obvious dig at the Cannes reactions to director’s previous remarks about Hitler – or personal vanity – nods at previous works in the shape of child neglect or red PVC shorts over fishnet tights.

The use of music is appalling. Not even bringing Bach into the equation in the film’s only decent analogy – between the protagonist’s apparently random activities and the composer’s cerebral polyphony – rescues or elevates the half-baked material.  As for the ludicrous ending, well, the reliance on a pun connecting the narrative to the lyrics of a popular song is something you would find in a bad student film.

JOÃO PAULO SIMÕES.