Breaking the Waves: a study of religious hypocrisy and oppression, and its effects on a naive woman, with a hollow heart

Lars von Trier, “Breaking the Waves” (1996)

For the most part this often nihilistic film is excruciating in its slow and exacting pace, and its drama is manipulative as well, but “Breaking the Waves” does raise very troubling questions about the nature of religious faith, Christian concepts about love, self-sacrifice and the role of women in conservative, fundamentalist Christian communities, and how Christianity offers both redemption and oppression to women if they believe in it. Its main character, Bess McNeill (Emily Watson in her film debut) is a naive young woman who has grown up in a severely authoritarian and insular Calvinist community in a remote part of Scotland. Quite how she meets Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a hard-drinking, hard-living Swede working on a North Sea oil rig, is never explained but the two end up marrying, to the disapproval of Bess’s community. Only the girl’s mother and widowed sister-in-law, nurse Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), grudgingly accept Jan. Through Jan, Bess experiences the joys and bliss of sexual intercourse and, having been starved of love and closeness all her life, becomes very needy and dependent on Jan.

Jan eventually has to return to the oil rig and Bess is thrown into despair. Her usual habit is to retreat to church or some place where no-one can observe her talking to God (in her own voice) and disputing with Him. She prays to God to return Jan and He apparently does so – by crippling Jan in an accident on the rig. Rendered paralysed from the neck down, Jan selfishly begs Bess to have affairs with other men and relay the details back to him so the couple can retain their carnal connection. Naturally Bess is repelled by Jan’s suggestion but as his condition goes from bad to worse, she starts to carry out his suggestions by masturbating men in buses and gradually whoring herself out to local men. Jan’s condition seems to improve after Bess tells him about her adventures and so she continues. Her behaviour antagonises Dodo and Dr Richardson who determine to keep her away from Jan and then to send her to a mental asylum as she appears to become more deluded about her ability to keep Jan alive and improve his condition. Needless to say, Bess’s family and church community are revolted by her activities and excommunicate her when she most needs emotional support and compassion for the arduous trials she believes God has imposed on her to demonstrate her love for Jan.

Watson’s acting as Bess is a tour-de-force that she has never been able to repeat in subsequent work and gives the character a depth that suggests the apparent naivete is a defence against the oppression and emotional coldness Bess has had to suffer all her life. It seems that only Jan is able to understand and appreciate what Bess is capable of. Dodo and Dr Richardson represent stereotypical well-meaning people who care for Bess but are blinded by the rationality drilled into them by nursing and medical school respectively. The rest of the cast pale into the background but do what they can to fill out a story that looks realistic but flies by its own Trierian logic. Von Trier milks the plot for all it can offer to create an emotional and moral dilemma for Bess: is Jan really out of his mind from all the drugs and surgical interventions? how can Bess tell if Dodo is telling her the truth about Jan’s day-to-day condition? does Jan sign the form approving Bess’s own interment into an asylum under duress from Dr Richardson?

The eventual resolution of the film’s plot sends up the central Christian belief in Jesus’ sacrifice for the love of humanity through crucifixion, his entombment, the disappearance of his body and his eventual resurrection. Significantly Dodo and Dr Richardson are converted to Bess’s cause after (spoiler alert) her agonising passion and persecution.

Love may be a mighty power indeed but at what cost to a person’s sanity and the values she lives by? The road that Bess is forced to travel and which strips her of love, support and finally God Himself is an unbelievably cruel and sadistic one. One suspects the reward she receives is not worth the degradation she is forced to undergo and the deity she worships is undeserving of her devotion. Despite the film’s excellent performances and the plot complications that enrich it, at its heart is a spiritual vacuum.

Manderlay: a not entirely satisfactory study of slavery in American society

Lars von Trier, “Manderlay” (2005)

The sequel to “Dogville” is an interesting philosophical if rather slower and less action-packed inquiry on the nature of freedom and democracy and on the insidious effects of imperialism and slavery on societies. In particular, the role of those individuals or countries that free people from oppression and then try to teach or demonstrate democracy to the newly freed, and the hypocrisies often inherent in such actions, comes under scrutiny. Lars von Trier’s pessimism about humanity and its potential to overcome its flaws becomes an asset here: no matter that an angel comes to free people from their shackles and to teach them a new way of life that will help them achieve their full potential as individuals, people end up backsliding into habits and destructive ways of thinking and behaving because these have been ingrained in them by custom and social pressure.

After leaving Dogville in flames, Grace and her entourage of gangsters travel through Depression-era America and enter Louisiana where they come across a cotton plantation that’s so remote that the Civil War has never touched the place and it’s still being run as a slave plantation. Grace insists on staying on at the plantation with her father’s lawyer and a small group of hitmen so she can free the slaves and educate them for their new roles as free people. The white family is reduced to chattel and the former slaves become joint owners of the plantation and its output under contracts drawn up by the lawyer. Grace finds a code of conduct called Mam’s Law which places all the adult slaves in a hierarchy that allocates each slave his/her particular role and set of expected behaviours; this code disgusts her and she does away with it.

As the film progresses, various problems beset the utopian community. Some of these issues are of Grace’s doing: she orders trees around the plantation to be felled for timber, leaving crops vulnerable to the severe dust storm that devastates everything and leaves everyone starving. The community is forced to kill their only donkey to feed a sick child while all the women including Grace are reduced to eating dirt. The child dies from hunger and malnutrition and one woman confesses she had secretly stolen and eaten the child’s meals. The community then hold a trial and sentence the guilty woman to death.

Manderlay’s affairs steadily improve and the cotton harvest is brought in and sold. However one ex-slave, Timothy, steals the money earned from the cotton sale and wastes it in drink. Grace not only learns of Timothy’s misdeed but also discovers who wrote Mam’s Law and the reason this was done: it was done to maintain the slave hierarchy set up by Mam to help the ex-slaves survive together in a white-dominated world hostile to them. Thus do the ex-slaves turn the tables upon Grace who does not find the truth about Manderlay and her own conduct at Manderlay at all palatable.

The minimal stage settings help to distance the audience from the characters and the plot (as does also John Hurt’s narration) and throws the emphasis onto the plot and its nuances. The acting performances are surprisingly good and the young Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard, not only inhabits and fleshes out Grace fully as a well-meaning liberal innocent but even shows her Dogville predecessor Nicole Kidman a lesson or two about injecting warmth and life into the character. The cast which includes Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and (in a very small role) Lauren Bacall gives good support to Howard who appears in nearly every scene as the film’s narrative is so focused on her character.

The plot does seem quite predictable: once Grace gets the socialist community up and running, and given that Lars von Trier is God in this little universe, one can expect various disasters to afflict this little utopia and break it apart. Von Trier deftly shows how one mishap leads to another as a result of a decision Grace makes: this serves to show how one crucial choice, made wrongly if innocently, can have severe consequences later down the track and lead to profound ethical dilemmas beyond Grace’s ability to solve. In an effort to mould her followers into a model democracy, she makes one mistake after another (in effect becoming another slave-master after Lauren Bacall’s Mam) and becomes mired in her own hypocrisy as the people apply her lessons a little too diligently and eventually catch her out.

The film appears to be critical of both the oppressor and the oppressed: the oppressor for enslaving people in the first place, then “freeing” them but expecting them to conform to a new set of rules and over-riding or punishing the freed people when they follow the lessons too literally or don’t perform as expected; and the oppressed for retaining the habits and attitudes learned during their enslavement, not really wanting freedom and democracy, or using those institutions and ideals to satisfy their immediate physical needs and doing no more to enrich themselves or contribute to the advance of democracy. Grace’s utopia ends up more or less back at square one and one can’t help but think that Mam before her tried something similar to what Grace has attempted with the people on the plantation before. To a point Lars von Trier is right in condemning the two sides but what is missing is a critique of the economic and social system that made the institution of slavery and the mindsets it fostered in slave-owners and the enslaved alike possible. Grace makes the mistakes she does because she has no understanding of the economic and social context in which Manderlay was operating before she took over the place. She does not listen to the ex-slaves and they for their part are reluctant to criticise her or warn her of what she’s doing wrong as their leader. She forges ahead with grand plans about how to run the plantation without consulting with the slaves and the former slave-owning family about how things were done and how they might be improved rather than tossed away.

A superficial parallel can be drawn between Grace and American attempts to impose democracy and freedom across the world over the past century: the reality is that the US has always been cynical in bringing abstract ideals to other countries as a cover for controlling other people’s land and resources and divesting them of their wealth to benefit a few individuals in the American political and economic elite. At this point in time, the US is aiding a so-called government reliant on gangs of fascist thugs and imported mercenaries to impose harsh control and economic austerity on an unwilling public in Ukraine. The end result of the EuroMaidan putsch against a legitimate if corrupt government with violence is far from bringing democracy, prosperity and freedom to the Ukrainians – it is to sack Ukraine of its wealth and to install NATO missiles right up against the border with Russia, Russia itself ultimately being the target for daring to follow its own political and economic path and to support Syria against Saudi and Qatari-funded “rebels”. There is quite a lot in “Manderlay” that echoes current events and will continue to do so as long as the US remains arrogant and regards itself as a superpower not bound by the lessons and warnings of history.

On another level, the fact that Manderlay despite Grace’s best attempts at reform winds up as impoverished as before, with the “slaves” as enslaved as ever – and insinuating that Manderlay for all its apparent pre-Grace innocence is the way it is simply because the slaves prefer to be be slaves – probably tells us much more about von Trier’s narrow and rather pig-headed view of humanity and its potential for change, and his failure to research very deeply into the institution of slavery and how it degraded both the slave-owners and the enslaved alike, than it does about people. (Perhaps it is a coincidence after all that von Trier’s film was released a couple of years after the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq; in the time after the invasion and before the film, news of atrocities inflicted by US and UK troops on Iraqi civilians filtered out to the West.) Passivity and acting according to the letter of the law may not necessarily indicate lazy, pleasure-seeking, unredeemable natures; they may be forms of rebellion and resistance, and Manderlay’s people have every right to suspect Grace of having ulterior motives in trying to force freedom and democracy on them if she is not honest with them about why she is doing what she does. There is little in the film to suggest that she shares her previous experiences with them as a way of being open. To return to the point I’m making, even Steve McQueen’s recent “12 Years a Slave”, limited as it was by its director’s vision and his tendency to make mountains out of certain mole-hills, did a better job of exploring the psychology of the master-slave relationship. One might have expected von Trier with his greater experience as a director and the opportunity offered by the script to explore the institution of slavery and its effect on human psychology and culture in some depth.

Dogville: failing to understand complexities and contradictions of American people, culture and history

Lars von Trier, “Dogville” (2003)

First in a series of films on American culture from Lars von Trier’s own rather idiosyncratic viewpoint, “Dogville” is a minimalist parable on how good people quickly turn nasty and commit acts of evil. Dogville is a tiny hamlet located in rural Colorado; the setting is some time during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A young woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is on the run from gangsters and comes to Dogville. The young town philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany) persuades the sceptical townsfolk to accept Grace as a refugee in a social experiment he is conducting on the town’s ability to be open and accepting of others. The Dogville denizens initially put Grace to a test lasting two weeks during which she assists with the town’s work. After that test, Grace is accepted by the town. In the months that follow, law enforcement officers arrive on two occasions to inform the Dogville residents that Grace is a fugitive who may be connected to crime. The townsfolk’s attitudes toward Grace change and they begin to abuse and exploit her in the most sordid and disgusting ways. She is chained up and forced to wear a heavy collar around her neck, the men use her as a prostitute, the women accuse her of sluttish behaviour and even the children of the town treat her like dirt. Finally Tom, who is supposedly in love with Grace, pulls out a business card given him by the gangsters earlier in the film to call them to come and take Grace away.

Unfortunately when the gangsters do come for Grace, the film’s punchline is revealed: rather than Tom using Grace as a tool in his social experiment, Grace was using Dogville as a laboratory and pawn in her own ongoing bizarre intellectual debate with her Mafia dad (James Caan) on the nature of evil in humans and the role that forgiveness – for Grace has been forgiving towards the townspeople in spite of their abusive and degrading behaviour – should play in how she deals with them. Daddy accuses Grace of being arrogant for constantly overlooking the townspeople’s motivations and reasons for abusing Grace and excusing their behaviour due to the peculiar circumstances in which she has come to the town; she is an outsider with an understandably shady past, police officers have warned the people about her and the town has been isolated for so long that hospitality towards outsiders does not come natually to them.

The film alludes to von Trier’s earlier film trilogy (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) of the golden-hearted girl who gives of herself unceasingly and without question until she has nothing left to give and even then is willing to sacrifice her life to keep on giving; but mostly it’s an exposition of a pessimistic view of humanity and its potential for redemption. (Perhaps von Trier himself got fed up with his golden-hearted heroines’ unceasing passivity and goodness and decided it was time Grace took collective revenge on their behalf as well as her own.) The townsfolk come to dislike Grace because she is a mirror of what is lacking in their lives or what they try to suppress in their natures in order to live from day to day. Von Trier seems to suggest that ultimately humans do not deserve to survive because when they meet something good that does not come with strings, they ultimately trash it. Morality or what passes for morality and ethics in Dogville is shown to be very fragile, especially when the realisation dawns on Tom and the townsfolk that Grace has very few choices and the safest choice for her is to stay in Dogville forever. Thus the people turn her into a slave.

I admit I am uneasy about this film: by reducing the world to a small town and filming the story on a stage with props, von Trier ends up over-simplifying the view that people are basically quite shitty in their natures and will resort to abusive behaviour given the right circumstances. An inkling that all’s not quite right with the town comes early in the film in Tom’s own behaviour as a self-styled thinker and town philosopher who lives off his father’s fortune and the way in which he decides to use Grace in his experiment to expose the flaws in the town’s communal mentality. Of course, Tom himself is undone by his experiment: he is just as mean-spirited as the townsfolk and in fact is even more so as he betrays Grace to the gangsters seeking her. There is nothing in the film about the role that other institutions and historical factors , such as the former institution of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans by whites in Colorado and the exigencies of the Great Depression might possibly have on the townspeople, to say nothing of the effects of social and cultural isolation from other communities on the people. There also isn’t anything about the town’s economy mentioned and how it might contribute to the people’s treatment of Grace: it seems significant to me that during her stay in Dogville, Grace has to work for wages to pay for board and her acquisition of a set of figurines and that the work she does, as well as her status in town, influences what she is paid. As her social status decreases, her work becomes more onerous and dangerous, and her pay drops.

Ultimately the film’s message seems to be that no matter how much grace is bestowed upon humans, human nature is so dark it cannot really be redeemed and in such a situation humanity is better off destroyed so that the world can be cleansed and be born anew. This is a despairing conclusion and one that belittles the acting performance given by Kidman as Grace. Kidman displays understated elegance in playing a Christ-like character who suffers endlessly and who represents a New Testament view of God as loving and forgiving. Bettany is quite good as the would-be disciple and Caan plays a judgemental mafia version of God who challenges Grace’s continued desire to forgive by suggesting that this desire arises from her own arrogance. (Say that again?) Other fine actors like Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson play fairly minor roles that could have been performed by others far less talented.

There is an underlying theme of the abuse of power by both the townsfolk and also by Grace and her godfather dad through the social and religious institutions these people have grown up with. Von Trier does not make much out of how individuals use religion, culture and social mores to gain and misuse power, nor how such institutions are moulded or lend themselves to people in ways that make the acquisition and abuse of power easy or difficult. The character of Tom is significant in this respect: he may have his real-life parallel in those sections of academia, science, industry, culture, religion, media and other intelligentsia who happily co-operate with their masters in government in oppressing the ordinary people but who just might find themselves thrown under a bus should the powers that be wish to dispense with their services.

I have the impression that von Trier in his own way was trying to grapple with the contradictions and paradoxes of an America that posits itself as a land of freedom, equality and democracy with the country where slavery lasted so long and racial prejudice has poisoned and corrupted many of its institutions, where money talks louder and more powerfully than abstract ideals and corrupts American people and their social, religious, political and economic institutions; and what he came up with is a comment on American society as he sees it from his narrow point of view without really exploring and understanding it much. It’s easy to sheet the blame home on a biologically deterministic view of human nature. As a result, despite the efforts of Kidman and company in giving life to the characters of “Dogville”, the film comes across as overly earnest, a bit shallow and very confused.



Dancer in the Dark: a manipulative film with a conservative and disheartening message

Lars von Trier, “Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Lars von Trier’s one attempt at making a tractor musical is the third and final installment in a fairy-tale trilogy of films in which the heroine is a good-hearted innocent who, believing she has committed a gross sin, makes amends by sacrificing everything she has even at the cost of her own life. In the trilogy, the heroine’s innocence arises from an inability to relate meaningfully to the world around her and von Trier makes no attempt to explain how this inability, which either comes across as stupidity or self-centredness, has come about originally. Whatever the source or cause of this inability, the heroine’s innocence leads her to make one blunder after another in the belief that she is being justly punished. She is eventually caught up in a vicious downward spiral that all but destroys her.

Von Trier uses this template to make sense of American society with its fascination for guns and gun-related violence and the legal and bureaucratic process that takes an innocent person from being framed for murder all the way to the gallows. Selma (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant working at a dreary and poorly paid job in a factory somewhere in rural America. She has come to the US in the hope of earning and saving enough money for her 10-year-old son to have an eye operation; he has inherited a genetic condition from Selma which is causing her own eyes to fail. In the meantime, Selma works furiously at the factory to earn extra money before her vision fades away completely, and in her spare time, she rehearses for an amateur production of a famous musical and goes to the cinema with her friend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) to watch Hollywood musicals.

Selma and her son live in a trailer on the property of a police officer, Bill (David Morse), who is behind in his interest payments to his bank and whose wage cannot support his wife’s lavish life-style. Bill steals the money Selma has saved and this leads to an altercation between them that has disastrous consequences for Selma.

The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese attacked by machine guns and the entire set-up of the film is unbelievably crude and aimed at extracting the maximum amount of sentimentality, tears and melodrama. Characters are drawn in such a watery way that one feels no sympathy for any of them, least of all for the son on whom Selma pins all her hopes: the boy appears to feel no gratitude for his mum for all the sacrifices she is making on his behalf but wags school whenever he can to go fishing. Save for Jeff (Peter Stormare) and Cathy who bust their guts hauling Selma’s arse out of trouble throughout the film, all characters are single-minded and self-centred and viewers can feel no sympathy for Selma when, under stress, she blanks out into a surreal beautiful fantasy world of bright colour, singing and dancing. The actors do what they can to flesh out their characters but one gets the feeling their talents were wasted.

The most disturbing aspects of the film are the messages expressed through Selma’s behaviour and her excuses and justifications for doing what she does. She believes that in giving birth to her son, who is thus cursed with her genetic condition, because she wanted someone to love and to love her back, she has behaved selfishly and must therefore suffer whatever punishments befall her. In this way, she will achieve an inner peace. This horrific conservative message is one that has been peddled, and is still being peddled, by many if not most of the most rapacious and destructive institutions in Western society over the centuries: hundreds of millions of people have suffered and died, often in horrible and traumatic ways, because their political, social and religious leaders decreed that they should accept their destinies meekly as the will of God or some other external authority and not try to improve their lives. The absurdity of Selma’s beliefs reaches its peak in her refusal to hire a lawyer to defend her against criminal charges pressed on her because she believes her son needs her money more than she does, even though this refusal means she is certain to die an early death and leave her son an orphan.

Selma even appears to welcome going blind: in one of several silly songs she sings, she rejoices that she has seen enough of everything and that there’s nothing more for her to see. Presumably once she goes blind, she’ll stay permanently in Hollywood musical fantasy land, where she loves to be, while the rest of the world sails on by and leaves her behind. In this way, she will preserve her “innocence” and “purity”, both of which are really little more than self-interest and ignorance. Selma is not curious about the world around her and seems unconcerned about how her son will cope without her. When the world does intrude on her “reality”, she therefore is unable to deal with it at all; instead she zooms on ahead with little thought for the consequences. When she becomes teary-eyed, one is tempted to believe this is instinctive – the cry of an animal caught in a leg trap – and self-serving with no thought for how the son will survive on his own.

The real pity here is that in Selma’s tragic tale, there is plenty of material that von Trier could have made a half-decent film from: the exploitation of factory workers working their butts off in mind-numbing mass assembly line work; lower middle class people being stiffed by their employers and banks to breaking point; the legal system which chews up wrongly charged and convicted people without money or influence and spits them onto death row; American mainstream society’s dislike of alternative politics and economic organisation, especially socialist culture; and the apparently inexorable machine process that sends Selma to her death. I see the film as insulting to the people who do end up on death row without proper legal representation because they are poor and because the system and culture that put them on the train-track to death have always discriminated against them.  However von Trier, like his heroines, prefers to live cocooned in a world of fantasy where beautiful things are unspoilt by reality, a world in which people, if they are to be good, must quietly and uncomplainingly accept the political, social and economic context in which they live their lives and not question the injustices that arise in such a context. Such a message surely appeals to those disappointed with the current state of the world, in which democracy, the social welfare state and co-operative endeavours to improve well-being and eliminate poverty appear to have failed.

As it is, the film is unconvincing and manipulative, wallowing in misery and grimness merely for the sake of doing so, and with no message that would inspire hope or sympathy in viewers for its characters or for the predicament they find themselves in.

Melancholia: meditation on depression and cosmic indifference to humanity waylaid by emphasis on shallow characters

Lars von Trier, “Melancholia” (2011)

Fed up with the deadbeat rate of intellectual and cultural evolution that the human species was demonstrating on planet Earth, the evil reptiloid aliens in the star system located deep in the constellation of Scorpius petitioned with one million collected signatures the relevant Imperial Herpetilian Department of Interstellar Interventions to wack one of their home galaxy planets onto a collision course with Earth and remove the bugger so a new little planet could be placed in our solar system and the whole story of life could start all over again without any mistakes like intelligent life forming by accident. OK this isn’t mentioned anywhere in Lars von Trier’s meditation on depression, “Melancholia”, his beautifully realised contribution to the sci-fi apocalyptic fantasy / black comedy / Romantic arthouse movie genre. The film continues ideas from “Antichrist” concerning the nature of the universe and humankind’s insignificance within an indifferent and even hostile cosmos: all the knowledge, science and religious faith we can muster won’t help us solve our own problems and certainly won’t help us survive a collision with a stray extra-solar planet. The only thing we can do is face the certainty of annihilation with the serene and passive calmness born of depression and lack of hope: a pretty despairing message, yes, but one that’s perhaps more reasonable than trusting in a non-existent God or belief systems that so far haven’t delivered on their promises of benefitting humans across the Earth.

I saw this film at the Dendy cinema in Newtown where I was unpleasantly treated to the trailer to “The Iron Lady”, a horror film starring Meryl Streep as the eponymous self-made Frankenstein monster. After this torture (the trailer reduced a male Sydney Morning Herald reader to uncontrolled weeping at the memory of living through the 1980s in the UK), anything will come as welcome relief and “Melancholia” does not disappoint. Eight minutes of silent slow-motion visual beauty in which the film’s main characters and motifs appear in haunted nature tableaux to the music of Richard Wagner’s prelude to  the opera “Tristan und Isolde” form the extended introduction. (The music repeats throughout the film to overwrought drama-queen effect.) Allowing for possible inaccuracies and bad science in the collision scene creation – after all, no-one’s ever witnessed anything the same or similar and lived to tell the tale – I find this perhaps the most gorgeous and poetic summation of the film’s concerns.

What follows after is pretty much a footnote character study of two sisters and how they cope with life generally and the knowledge that everything that’s hit them before which they survived won’t help in a Final Judgement. The first half of “Melancholia”, labelled “Justine”, follows bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and new hubby Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) as they arrive a little too fashionably late for their reception thrown by Justine’s sister Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). The reception lasts most of the day and well into the night but it’s not a happy one: Justine’s estranged Mum and Dad  (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) disgrace themselves; Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) trails her for advertising copy; and John whines constantly about how much money the reception is costing him and Justine had better be happy and grateful for the generosity. Justine becomes depressed: her parents fail to show any sympathy but remain self-obsessed, her boss attempts to manipulate her and corporate invertebrate Michael shows no indication of being able to understand Justine and her problem family. By the end of the evening and the dawn of a new day, Justine has told off her boss for the prick he is and her parents and new husband have abandoned her.

In the second half, titled “Clare”, the film targets Clare and John in their reaction to the news of the looming collision between Earth and Melancholia. Justine has descended into full-blown depression. Although John attempts to protect Clare and their son (Cameron Spurr) from the dreadful news about Melancholia, he ends up giving in to despair. Justine accepts the news of Earth’s demise with calm and serenity and Clare bounces from helplessness to headless-chook panic and action to fruitless religious “ritual”.

Apart from Justine herself, delivered by Dunst in a sterling performance in which her blank face masks a million-and-one emotions and thoughts, the acting tends to be cardboard cut-out cartoonish. Rampling redefines snarling bitterness and sarcasm, Hurt sleepwalks through his role as feckless womaniser and Sutherland’s character is a mere whingeing rich-boy incapable of having a decent civilised conversation with his wife or sister-in-law. Gainsbourg, looking gaunt and nervy, nails the panicky sister down pat. The cinematography, jumpy and amateurish in the style of a home videorecording, throws viewers’ attention onto the to-ings and fro-ings of the characters as they grapple with belief and faith in science and the reality of what’s happening in the sky. It might be said that the choice of filming style is unfortunate for the subject matter and is ultimately the film’s downfall: the camera really should have kept still most of the time and all the characters portrayed in a remote way as though in a diorama setting that shows off Clare and John’s palatial home and the surrounding forests and other greenery. Clare and John would then be seen as symbols of a helpless hysterical elite that has no more idea about how to deal with global crises than we plebeians do. As it is, we lose sight of what “Melancholia” is really telling us about human society and its self-centredness in a world and universe that demand our attention more than ever, and the film becomes a fussy study of shallow rich people. Depression becomes one character’s way of realising that humankind lives in fantasy la-la-land where having a dream job, a dream spouse and a dream family and home turn out to be unfulfilling and oppressive; depression becomes an escape and a form of freedom.

I did not find “Melancholia” at all depressing or pessimistic and there are actually frequent moments of deep black humour throughout the film. The look is beautiful and the themes are deep and worthy of attention; shame that the film is not tighter in its narrative and the camera style is completely wrong for the film’s subject and themes. The science could have been a lot better: where are the earthquakes, over-blowing volcanoes and tsunamis that should have been the result of the intense gravitational attractions, what happened to the atmosphere burning up as the planet Melancholia draws near, does Earth or the Moon get knocked out of its trajectory around the Sun, what about all the conservative politicians and the geologists and engineers in the pay of mining companies trying to convince all and sundry that Melancholia doesn’t exist or won’t endanger Earth even though the evidence is 99.9% against them? I suppose though, as John says in the film, we should allow for a margin of error.





Antichrist: inquiry into misogyny and battle between rationality and Nature

Lars von Trier, “Antichrist” (2009)

Highly controversial for its depiction of sexual violence and mutilation, “Antichrist” was made when von Trier was suffering depression and the lack of hope and the despair that follow that condition clearly show in the film. Symbolism is rife throughout and can be interpreted on several levels: at a very basic level, it’s about a couple grieving the loss of a child and the strain their grief places on their marriage and sanity; on another level, it’s about the arrogance of humans in believing that reason and human ingenuity alone can solve all problems afflicting humankind; and on yet another, it posits Nature as a sinister force against humanity and how the natural world plays people off against one another through gender warfare.

The couple known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are plunged into grief and She becomes depressed and feels guilt after their toddler son falls from a window to his death. He, a therapist, takes his wife in hand and tries to treat her with psychotherapy; all his attempts fail so he takes her to a woodland area where she had spent time writing her thesis on gynocide. The thesis is supposed to be critical of the acts and deaths performed over the centuries by men on often innocent women and girls but over the course of the film He finds to his horror on reading various thesis extracts that She believes in the concepts wholeheartedly to the extent that She regards him (He) as her mortal enemy.

The cinematography must be the outstanding feature in “Antichrist”: often shot like a nature documentary, the film features lush green backgrounds and dark haunted forests through which a cool stream flows. The handling of images and some of the weirdly wacky and wackily weird critters that appear suggest cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle might need to fine-tune his technique a little but generally the work is of a very high standard and has great atmosphere and poetry. Train scenes seem to have an unnatural life and vitality and other scenes set in the woodlands can appear both benign and malevolent. The acting from Dafoe and Chainsbourg is incredible despite their having to go through some very harrowing and emotionally painful scenes!

Von Trier has been accused of misogyny in several of his films including “Antichrist” but I did not find any overt evidence of gratuitous female-bashing other than what’s required in the film. Misogyny where it presents is explored through She’s struggles with He as he tries to treat her illness and the movie makes clear that He’s efforts are doomed to failure against a greater force that he cannot understand. Nature is portrayed as a malevolent beast that mobilises plant life and the weather against the couple and eventually insinuates itself into the couple’s lives by seemingly taking over She’s mind and spirit. The unconscious and irrational self through She bests He’s rational and well-meaning attempts to cure his wife. Thus Nature flummoxes He by causing an oak tree to rain acorns on the couple’s cabin, hitting him with ticks and presenting a deer, a fox and a crow at critical points in the movie to him. One notes that She never sees these animals and doesn’t need to. The message seems to be that women through their connection to Nature (because they can give birth) have access to a terrifying power denied men and which they will never comprehend or overcome. Hope and the wish for a better world are useless in this context. Sex is no longer an expression of mutual love but a weapon with which parties try to dominate each other (and there is plenty of that in “Antichrist”!) and Nature punishes humans for their intellectual pride.

The break-up of the film into four chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue gives it a symmetry: at the beginning and the end, the major characters, or one of them anyway, have contact with other people; in the middle of the film, the main characters He and She cut themselves off from the world and pay a heavy price for their isolation.

Pace is leisurely and slow and moments here and there throughout the film could have had their fat trimmed off and the action made a little more efficient without jeopardising the main thrust of the film’s message. The Antichrist turns out to be She in full witches’ fury during Chapters 3 and 4, attacking He and crushing his testicles. Although He is able to subdue She, he is forced to do by acknowledging his own irrational side and so makes himself vulnerable to psychological and spiritual attack in the film’s epilogue when hundreds of blank-faced women rise from the ground and walk towards him.

The supposed misogyny turns out to be a warning that humans are possessed of (and by) an irrational nature that is only thinly suppressed by intellect and rationality. Upholding only reason and all that it understands while denying and suppressing our “Antichrist” side will ultimately lead to disaster as our dark side ends up being channelled into a sinister force that explodes sooner or later to our detriment and affect others around us. The universe will not help us because the universe itself is a magnification of that sinister force.

Medea (dir. Lars von Trier): human struggle against forces of Nature and God in a beautiful and emotional film

Lars von Trier, “Medea” (1988)

Originally made for TV and with a script based on that other famous Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s adaptation of Euripides’s play “Medea”, this Lars von Trier film is a beautiful and sombre piece where people struggle for existence in a harsh and unforgiving land. Here Nature is a sinister, unknowable force and those who, like the central figure Medea (Kristen Olesen), can command its control are regarded with awe, fear and hatred. In this version of the Greek legend, Jason (Udo Kier) is preparing to marry the princess Glauke to secure his future and that of his two small sons. The teenage Glauke is suspicious of Medea and fears Jason still loves her so the girl convinces her father King Creon to banish the older woman. The King allows Medea time to pack her things and leave Corinth with her children. Medea however has other plans which include destroying Creon and Glauke and denying Jason any chance of future happiness by refusing access to their children … alive.

The film is slow and highly absorbing with many outdoor scenes set in a flat, bleak landscape alive with rain, wind, sea water, sand and grass all alive, bleeding into one another and brimming with malevolent intent. There are at least two shots of lone figures walking in the distance over moving sand or grass: both are very surreal in look and atmosphere. Backgrounds may be bleached or coloured strangely and some scenes hark back to the 1920s – 1930s in their layering with more natural figures in the foreground against a pre-taped background in a homage to Dreyer who had planned to make the movie himself but never was able to work on it. Close-ups offer an intimate, immersive, almost voyeuristic tone to the movie. The film stock used reveals soft lines and a soft white outdoors light; a fairy-tale quality to the movie is the result. Colours are usually muted and limited to dark tones and brown and blue colours, and the style of the film is rustic in a way that suggests the action takes place in Iron Age Denmark, parallel with the Roman empire in time and space.

The acting from the two leads Olesen and Kier is superb: Olesen dominates much of the film with a highly expressive emotional range that covers grief, anguish, sullenness and desire for vengeance. Kier is almost as good as the cynical Jason who thinks he can score one over Medea, claim Glauke as his bride and keep the kids but ends up losing everything he treasures; in the film’s last ten minutes, completely dialogue-free, he madly dashes about in circles on his horse and then on foot in the blowy grasslands, finally stabbing blindly at the ground, his spirit broken while Medea prepares to sail away. The actors who play Creon (Henning Jensen) and Glauke (Ludmilla Glinska) are quite good in their limited roles.

In this famous story, the moment when Medea despatches her two sons is always chilling and needs care to act and film well; von Trier treats the scene with restraint and pathos. As with many other scenes there isn’t much dialogue and the pain on Medea’s face as the children die is too much to bear. It’s creepy to watch too as one of the children is a willing helper in both his and his brother’s deaths. The suffering and deaths of Glauke and Creon are cleverly foreshadowed by the behaviour of Jason’s horse which was scratched by the poisoned crown that Medea gives to Jason as Glauke’s bridal gift: the animal goes mad and races out of the palace to a beach where it convulses and dies.

Men are revealed as having no control over their destiny but are instead manipulated by women suspicious of one another and fearful that the other may steal her man. This might say something about the nature of the society in which Glauke and Medea live: a society where women surrender their lives completely to men and depend on them totally for their security and well-being. It’s a society where men call all the shots and women are helpless so they must resort to subterfuge to get their way. A man may plan well but all his plans will come to nought due to unseen deception and the Fates don’t care at all what happens to him.

Of all the films by Lars von Trier I have seen – I have seen five others (“Breaking the Waves”, “The Idiots”, “Dancer in the Dark”, “Dogville”, “Antichrist”) – “Medea” is the most emotionally moving, the most flowing without formal separation into chapters as with many of his films and the most visually beautiful and abstract. There is an authenticity here that his later work lacks and his treatment of women is more sympathetic and less ambiguous as well. “Medea” may well be the best film he has ever made.

Compared with Pier Aolo Pasolini’s version of “Medea”, the Danish film is smaller in scale and more intimate overall but nowhere near as complex and ambitious in concept.