It doesn’t matter what critics say. It’s what the visionary filmmaker does that counts. And we don’t have many. If words help the vision cut deeper, mean more, assist in following the thread, what we say, in support or denial, may have value. But the real value is in what the filmmaker, caught up in the slipstream of “the way things seem to be,” discovers. In this spirit I presume…
Here’s what the promoters of Lars von Trier’s latest film, MELANCHOLIA. say:
“In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine and Michael are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire, and brother-in-law John. Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth.”
But as Joe Cocker said, “I’m not feeling that good myself.” Something’s gone a little haywire here. I’m used to von Trier’s brilliance, his refusal to accept the usual cultural homilies, glib optimism, sentimental patriotism, the Chamber of Commerce booster-izing so familiar to mainstream life and art. He always tries to pry open the lid of our protected egos and introduce us to the veldts and forbidding steppes of the Id. He seems to say, “You say you’re this and that. But I wonder. How close do you live to the mayhem which haunts our species?” And he suggests underlying strata of deep misgiving.
Good. Because Hollywood sure doesn’t go that route. Anything untied: tied. Any suggestions that not all good intentions lead to good: denied. It’s good to have someone making movies who thinks that maybe human culture has been slanted to prevent the bad news from becoming airborne and inhaled. I’ve always counted on von Trier to be truthful about the dangers within and around us. Suzuki Shosan says, “Every moment of your life, perceive your death in front of you.” To Americans so addicted to the good news, that sounds like a pretty morbid proposition.
For example, in von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES (1996), Emily Watson’s character has sex with a cruel psychopath in order to liberate energies which might cure her paralyzed husband. Eschewing all the usual nostrums and medical procedures she indulges in a quixotic version of pagan sexual healing, following her instincts into dangerous territory. Her desperation leads her to try anything, follow every impulse, in pursuit of a miracle. It’s care for her husband, her determination to conquer death, which gives this seeming perversion an ethical character.
Many of Von Trier’s women have their roots in Lilith, the night flying seductress of men and consumer of children found in Babylonian, Assyrian, Hebraic, and other Middle Eastern mythologies. In ANTICHRIST (2009) Willem Dafoe’s wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg is so mordant, dark, and self destructive she finally drives a grindstone on a stake through Dafoe’s leg, a paroxysm of revenge for the death of their child who fell out of a window when they were having sex. And in the end, the somewhat bemused psychoanalyst Dafoe, is pursued up a Seventh Seal hillside by a throng of rabid women. Von Trier combines bold dramaturgy with vivid imagery to show us the unruly and sexually drastic side of ourselves we do anything to deny, at least in public. But Von Trier won’t let us get away with our lies.
Yet MELANCHOLIA itself is something of a lie, if you consider a film which only pretends to significance a lie. Very uncharacteristic of von Trier. Or maybe it’s just a harmless fib told with sly modesty for a film which, stylish and portentous, still doesn’t portend. The relationships are predictable, unoriginal, and flat. The dialogue lacks the one human skill indispensable to the Fellini-esque decadents the film portrays. Wit. And irony. A well turned phrase is the very affidavit of a successful wedding, or a cocktail party. At least in the movies.
Nothing like this here. The dialogue in MELANCHOLIA consists almost entirely of slack jawed clichés. Smart actors wallow in dumb characterizations, apparently in search of at least one decent punch line. It’s not fair to blame actors when directors and writers, (von Trier is both here), are working without full command of their material. I suspect that von Trier wanted an English language film for marketing reasons. In BREAKING THE WAVES he had Peter Asmussen as a co-writer, but here he goes it alone. This film exhibits no ear either for English dialogue or for the language itself. Still it didn’t deter the National Society of Film Critics (2012) from awarding it Best Picture and Dunst Best Actress.
I’ve seen the Skarsgards (son Alexander and father Stellan) do good work though I’m not sure about Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. I found Gainsbourg almost un- watchable in ANTICHRIST, wallowing in blame and self pity, destroying the chance that her nausea might have an existential basis. (Naturally her performance won Best Actress at Cannes.) And, in MELANCHOLIA, Kirsten Dunst is willful and self destructive in an equally un-interesting way.
I like people who avoid pinning the rap on others, who fight off self-justification and refuse the refuge of entitlement so that their downfall elicits sorrow, and sometimes even, a tragic effect. In both ANTICHRIST and now MELANCHOLIA, the women are unpleasant in the most flat footed and dismissive way. No man is good enough for them and they seem to expect the audience to empathize. No wonder the critics gave the film exultantly high marks.
Most readers have heard about the flap at Cannes last year where von Trier, a constant (and well deserved) favorite on the Croisette, was kicked out of the festival for supposed pro Nazi remarks. I think he was jobbed by intrepid censors and obscentiy sleuths just waiting for someone to insult their sensibilities. It used to be that you could laugh at Hitler. At least Mel Brooks thought so and so did Roberto Benigni. Certainly von Trier is not a racist but he is a trickster, and sometimes a bit of a loud mouth, awesome to the cinerati he can count on to hang on his every insult.
Here he might have played the enfant terrible a beat too long. Interesting that this dust-up occurred in the year of MELANCHOLIA, a film which lacks his usual touch and depth. I’d prefer that powerful artists take heed of the respect society gives them, and behave with restraint. The less they court notoriety, the more room they win to explore difficult material in their films. James Agee says, “Official acceptance is the kiss of Judas.” Lipstick on the collar is no distinction to boast about.
My hope is that after Lars von Trier’s next screening he will ease up, answer questions and try to understand an audience which follows him avidly and wants to understand what he knows. I know this is not an age for sincerity. Earnestness is savaged in the press and seen as a mark of sentimentality. Artists are laughed at for their vulnerability. But I’ll vote for honest candor over heedless arrogance anytime, particularly from the seers of our time. And for me, von Trier is one of them. Just not this time.
* Rob Nilsson’s portrait painted by Valentin Popov (oil on canvas 28″ x 26″).