Extreme Memes: O-Faces, Paper Bags and the Paratexts of Nymph()maniac

Curator's Note

In the run-up to the release of Lars von Trier’s four-hour long Nymph()maniac (2014), a carefully crafted publicity campaign teased viewers with a series of publicity posters, still photographs, and a mock behind-the-scenes tableau featuring the film’s all-star cast members in an array of highly suggestive poses. Amongst these were posters of the film’s main stars—including Shia LeBeouf, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Uma Thurman, and Udo Kier—seemingly naked, and captured in medium close-up against a white background performing their best orgasm faces. Memes of these ‘O-Faces’ rapidly emerged on user-generated websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Similarly, Shia LeBeouf’s bizarre act of donning a paper bag for the film’s Berlin Film Festival screening has become an acknowledged part of Nymph()maniac’s publicity campaign, as audiences at Curzon cinema’s ‘One Night Stand’ screening of volumes 1 & 2 in Chelsea were presented with captioned paper bags to wear over their heads. Photos of paper-bag wearing cinema-goers Tweeted by various attendees were quickly re-Tweeted to form part of the official marketing campaign for subsequent release dates, while the paper bag has taken on a life of its own outside of the context of the film.

What, if anything, can these memes tell us about the ways in which viewers and users engage with extreme cinema and its provocations in a participatory network culture? On the one hand, such memes provide evidence that, in a convergence culture, ‘if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead’ (Henry Jenkins 2009). While extreme cinema has long relied on the marketability of provocation to secure audiences, in a digital culture, audiences are required to participate in new ways in the circulation of extremity. But what needs to be acknowledged above all is the playful nature of such paratexts – memes involving googly eyes and cute cat grimaces are anything but extreme. Furthermore, the memes that market extremity do so to a much wider audience than the film was ever intended for and use humour to construct extremity as a kind of joke. What is compelling about these not-so-extreme memes is how they seem to actively skewer fantasies and anxieties about the pornographic accessibility of graphic images in a digital network culture by draining the explicit sexuality out of the film’s images. They offer further fodder to the marketing of extreme cinema as a visceral experience, at the same time as they seem to undercut its very practices of provocation.



Great post Tanya/Tina, as I was reading I was already anticipating your conclusion. So, I'm curious to know what's the larger significance of these marketing practices? As you suggest, they seem to undercut the essence of this cinema, and yet they also expand the territory of visceral experience at the same time. Is this simply the inevitable domestication of this cinema through expanding its audience vis-a-vis marketing? Or, perhaps Von Trier felt the need to openly acknowledge his own self-seriousness as a filmmaker in order to manage the critical expectations upon its release?

I agree, excellent post. I wonder if you wouldn't say that in Nymphoniac, the process of negotiating the extreme begins in the film itself? Different scenes seem to have been included specifically to respond to - and provoke - those who have accused von Trier of being misogynistic, anti-semitic, racist... I think this self-conscious play with the von Trier-persona goes very well with all the digressions about fly-fishing and fibonacci numbers, but those scenes do pull us away from the visceral.

Interesting post, Tanya and Tina! I wonder also how much these extratextual promotional poses are a calculated way of -- for once -- pushing von Trier out of the spotlight, to offset his directorial persona in the wake of his disastrous antics at Cannes for MELANCHOLIA. After von Trier's (mock?) pro-Nazi rhetoric at that film's press conference, I remember gifs spreading widely on the internet of Kirsten Dunst reacting with horror/disgust/embarrassment at her director's behavior before the world's press. Maybe the model here is to counter-attack with (a) a chorus of faces basically endorsing von Trier's inevitably controversial project and (b) making the pitch become the international cast's committed performances, rather than the filmmaker himself? I bet von Trier is still pulling the strings, off-screen, though...

Exactly Tim! This is always the risk with trying to anticipate the moves of Von Trier the trickster - you just know that no matter what, he's always pulling the strings! Thanks so much to you, Adam and Nikolaj for your fantastic responses. The idea that the marketing campaign expands the visceral responses is interesting, Adam. I did enjoy the marketing campaign and I have been thinking about the ways that it inflected my viewing experience of Nympho. I think its humour increased my distanced, reflexive spectatorship of both Part One and Part Two. So yes, Nikolaj, I think you are quite right that there is an interesting process of negotiating the extreme in the film itself and I would like to explore further the relationship between such moments and the paratexts we discuss above.

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