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Berlinale 2014 Nymphomaniac: Volume I

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Berlinale 2014: Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Berlinale 2014: Nymphomaniac: Volume I

The first half of Lars von Trier’s probable masterpiece, Nymphomaniac, arrives on eddies of a “playful” publicity campaign that threatened to flatten the licentiousness (and even the straight-up sexiness) of the subject matter into a string of dopey gags. A series of posters featuring ASCII-rendered genitalia and photos capturing its international cast mid-coitus, were mischievous in a way consistent with von Trier’s own smirking, ludic impishness—the pranksterish postures that ignite even his worst and most boring work.

At the risk of whittling one of the most thorny, interesting, and exasperating of living filmmakers down to a single problem, the central concern (for me, at least) with von Trier and his films is that this playfulness rather easily teeters into boring didacticism. His button-pushing provocations—both in terms of his films’ frequently controversial material (rape, depression, mental retardation, racism, more rape) and the ideas (or discernible whiffs of ideas) that drive them—become needling and banal.

It’s like we’re constantly asked to take for granted that von Trier is playing his own devil’s advocate, putting across visions of nihilistic reckoning, sneering at the feeble human soul’s instinctual gravitation toward corruptibility and self-pollution, while simultaneously being asked to believe that he somehow believes the opposite. He angers and riles us and ignites the passion and intellect, while not really meaning any of it, off in the corner with that shit-eating grin on his face offered up as some mawkish mea culpa. He’s like Gabbo on The Simpsons, bashfully offering little else in his own defense beyond, basically, “I’m a bad widdle boy.” It’s infuriating. And much more so because it’s meant to be exactly that.

Berlinale 2014 Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

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Berlinale 2014: Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Berlinale 2014: Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

It’s easy to greet the prospect of Michel Gondy making a doodle movie about the ideas of Noam Chomsky like that aggrieved nerd on The Simpsons: “Ugh, why does it have be zany?”

Not since Chomsky humored wingnut conservative Alex Jones by sitting for a long-form radio interview has the 84-year-old linguist, political commentator, cognitive scientist, activist, and all-around good guy been so weirdly paired up as he is here. Proceeding from some half-baked idea that making a conventional movie about the author of Manufacturing Consent would be inherently disingenuous, as every cut is a lie and every meaning ascribable not to the film’s subject, but to its director, Gondry proceeds to laboriously hand-animate a series of conversations conducted with Chomsky over the past few years. Given that these morphing, mercurial sketches are even more beholden to Gondry’s halfway-grating/halfway-charming personality of wide-eyed, quasi-autistic bemusement, the whole wacky setup comes off like an intellectual contrivance. It would have been more honest for Gondry simply to say, “I wanted to draw it.”