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Repetition and Difference: Close-Up on Yorgos Lanthomos’s “Nimic”

Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest short film holds up a mirror and undoes one man's personality.
Savina Petkova
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Yorgos Lanthomos’s Nimic is exclusively showing on MUBI in the Luminaries series.
A thriller in twelve minutes? Sure: just create a doppelganger that forces a person to confront themselves and their unstable identity. There is, apparently, nothing more terrifying than a steadily executed undoing of one’s personality, as Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest short film Nimic, testifies. With an elliptic story of a man, suddenly and inexplicably, being copied by a woman, the Greek-born director uses doubling as social criticism. And as in previous works, his preferred mode of address is one of stern disinterest, since all characters hold zero investment in the world outside their doorstep, hotel room (The Lobster), or royal palace (in The Favourite).
Nimic is Lanthimos’s second artistically acclaimed short film following Necktie (2013), made as part of “Venezia 70 – Future Reloaded,” for which the Biennale commissioned 70 filmmakers to reflect on the future of cinema in less than two minutes of screen time. Necktie draws two schoolgirls face to face in an old-fashioned pistol duel and the effect is at once uncompromisingly vexing and exudes subtle tenderness. Such brisk and snappy storytelling should come as no surprise, since in the years between graduating from the Stavrakos film school in Athens and his breakthrough sophomore feature Dogtooth (2009), Lanthimos has directed many commercials and music videos to fund his films.
Nimic, as it’s the case with Necktie, owes more to the conventions of early cinema reels—the quasi-magical rhythm of editing that feels just slightly off-key as a means to draw in the audience and highlight the minute role of speech. Firstly, minor inconsistencies and eye-line mismatches from frame to frame flirt effectively with the audience’s demand of coherence and make it impossible not to grasp the medium’s artificiality. At the same time, Nimic is shot on real locations in Mexico City. We see the characters traverse the corners of Plaza Río de Janeiro in the middle-class Colonia Roma (shot not too far away from the now infamous spot of Alfonso Cuaron’s eponymous 2018 film), while the house they inhabit (both exterior and interior) is one of the wealthy residences in Colonia Country Club— a southern part of the city where Mexico’s most famous film studios reside. The film’s spatial continuity is not in question but the overlapping use of studio settings and city exteriors makes up the could-be-anywhere contemporary experience of the globalized world.
In the ironic twists of Lanthimos’s universe, weirdness begins with the other person. In Nimic, Father (Matt Dillon) attends to family duties and on the way home from cello practice\ encounters a stranger (Daphne Patakia) sitting opposite him on the subway train. He casually asks, “Excuse me, do you have the time” and her delayed reply parrots the question back at him (hence why Patakia’s character is credited as “Mimic”). The exchange unlocks the cryptic potential of the film’s forthcoming repetitions. In the subway, bound by the dramatic unity of space and time, both characters ought to verbally demand synchronicity: the objective time equals one’s subjective sense of time, figuratively mapping out the interrogator onto the responder.
The visual doubling of Father onto Mimic also imitates that question-and-answer structure. From this moment on, the camera traverses every street twice, again and again panning swiftly from corner to corner. Nimic’s cinematic grammar,employed by Mexico native Diego García (who’s worked with the likes of Carlos Reygadas and Nicolas Winding Refn)],  is a spatial repetition with a slight temporal lag as Mimic tails Father through the city. One body takes the place of another in identical staging throughout frames, while the camera retains its preferred angle and movement to capture the two as the only difference within the sameness.
Synchronicity is attained if only in a single shot, as Father and Mimic stand next to each other in corresponding poses, both armed with a bouquet of gladioli—also known as ‘sword lilies that recall a weaponized sentiment. In the film’s central scene, the doubles demand validation (“Tell your mother who the real father is”), spoken in sync and this is the first time they are framed together. Nevertheless, they occupy different planes, either superimposed or somehow hierarchised by foreground and background, until a protracted zoom shoves Father out of the frame in favor of Mimic. Otherwise, the most populated shots are seen through a fisheye lens to create an even more claustrophobic feeling of an enlarged but hungry space. As if the room might collapse inwards and devour its inhabitants for being one too many.
If Nimic feels disorienting, it is because even though every gesture is imbued with dramatic meaning, it still feels more ambiguous than any social rigidity or institutional stiffness a viewer would typically expect from Lanthimos. The director credits “a simple idea” for the film’s birth, but the more one tries to formulate its comprehensibility, the more Nimic resists it with its repetitive slippages. Western culture has employed doppelgangers as an artistic tool for self-perpetuation, according to Freud, while the trope has found fecund soil in German silent cinema as a signifier of, first, modernity as experienced by members of different social groups, and second, the traumatic embedding of technological reproduction between an original and a copy that makes singular objects replaceable doubles. Transposed over the human body, such a technological gain entails an existential loss, that of a sense of ingenuity, and the doppelganger functions as a photographic negative that reveals the failure of dichotomies.
Lanthimos’s austere style conceals a bitter but truthful accusation, and the joke’s on contemporary viewers for thinking we’ve shelved binaries such as gender, since now, a woman could be a man’s doppelganger without raising an eyebrow. At the same time, another level of critique is at play: by doubling the character, Lanthimos has already tricked us into referring to that same dichotomy we are supposed to refute. As Father and Mimic fight over a place in the family by repeating “You’re my other half,” taking turns in mock bedtime cuddles and feet entangling activities, we are also invited to place our trust in one or the other. A savvy trap indeed, one that loosens its grip only when one concedes with humility: maybe the bizarre title of the film (Romanian for “nothing”) cloaks a sincere statement in self-irony. With its short form and decisive aesthetics, Nimic repeatedly resists psychologization. Instead, the film holds up a mirror in which one can see all the flaws and maybe love the humanity behind them, the trick is just to keep looking.

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