Punctuation Matters: or, How Lars von Trier Got The Titular Brackets Bandwagon Rolling

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

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An early teaser poster for Lars von Trier’s most recent feature(s) comprised nothing more than the writer/director’s name above the film’s title, both written in stark, serifed capitals – but it also revealed the filmmaker at his most playful. What at first appears to be the ‘o’ at the centre of the word ‘nymphomaniac’ turns out, on closer inspection, to be a pair of parentheses, in a smart and sexy piece of mannered spelling that puns on its own punctuation.

Written thus, the title suggests pictographically a woman’s open legs and the space in between, and so reduces sex to a purely verbal, literate level – something that the film’s narrator/protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) will also do with her decidedly oral tales of (not always oral) eros. The brackets also split the title in two, much as the film would be split into two volumes – and divide it furthermore between ‘nymph’ and ‘maniac’, words that capture the conflicted personality of a heroine who at different times seems a sexual divinity and a criminal madwoman.

The missing ‘o’ points to the orgasm that Joe will herself lose in Volume 2, as well as to a more general zero-grade nihilism that characterises the so-called ‘Depression Trilogy’ of which Nymph()maniac forms the third part. Those brackets adumbrate an absence, something missing that requires supplementation. In essence, to make sense of the title, and of those brackets that fail to come full circle, we have to fill in that gaping hole ourselves, bringing, so to speak, our own ‘o’ (or perhaps ‘oh’, which was certainly my response on first seeing the poster).

All of which is to say that Nymph()maniac does exactly what a good, economic title should: it is at once a straightforward announcement of the film’s subject, a more cryptic, punning hint at what might be found by those willing to penetrate deeper inside – and, perhaps most importantly of all, it is a wide-open come-hither invitation to the filmgoing punter. The promise of sex was spelt out with even more oblique explicitness by subsequent posters that reduced reproductive organs, male and female, to elaborate emoticons – or ‘eroticons’ – formed from punctuation marks that, with a nod and a wink, left us to draw the dirty pictures for ourselves.

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It has not taken long for von Trier’s sophisticated play with punctuation to be picked up by others who sadly neither appreciate nor deploy this titular grammar quite so well. A promotional poster for the forthcoming Manhattan, a TV series dramatising the domestic lives of Los Alamos scientists as they race to build the first nuke, features a striking image of a suburban neighbourhood literally under the shadow of the bomb. This is accompanied by the words ‘nuclear’ and ‘family’, separated by a full stop so that their individual meaning comes as much into focus as their collective sense as a two-word phrase.

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All this is clever, and attention-grabbing. But then there is the title, rendered as MANH(A)TTAN with the central ‘a’ in parentheses, an isolated atomic element. This certainly emphasises the ‘A’ in A-bomb, but the problem is that the bracketed letter is surrounded awkwardly by the non-words ‘manh’ and ‘ttan’, and just looks clumsy alongside von Trier’s elegantly polysemic collocation of marks and letters. And if the passage of that phallic missile through the middle of the bracketed ‘a’ to the town below is intended to suggest the buttfucking that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were soon to receive as a result of the Los Alamos research (after all, ‘A’ means ‘anal’, right?), then there is a coarseness in that which contrasts with von Trier’s wittier minimalism.

In other words, Manhattan borrows the form of von Trier’s title, but fails to replicate von Trier’s measured control of content. Evidently this parenthetic trend will have a short half-life – although, leaving the publicity poster’s titular typography aside, Manhattan does sound rather good…

Anton Bitel