Cinema Reviews Thoughts


Despite a Cannes premiere overshadowed by controversy, director Lars Von Trier has returned with arguably his finest film.

It explores the relationship between two sisters at a large country house: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), recently married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who along with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), has organised the wedding and reception.

Split into two parts, the first involves an extravagant wedding reception, filled with misery; whilst the second focuses on the two sisters as they stay in the same location, as a large blue planet called Melancholia threatens to collide with the earth.

Opening with a stunning slow-motion overture, set to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it blends intimate drama with grand, apocalyptic disaster and the end result is a stylish and – unusually for Von Trier – heartfelt film.

In the past the director’s sneaky, contrarian could be both a blessing and a curse, making his films boldly inventive, exasperating, or sometimes both.

His last film Antichrist (2009) displayed some of his undoubted gifts as a director before collapsing into a ludicrous orgy of violence and hysteria, which scandalised the audiences at its world premiere in Cannes.

After the climactic scene of the film – which was one of those genuine ‘is Von-Trier-taking-the-piss?’ endings – a bizarre dedication appeared to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Why? I’m not exactly sure, other than the Danish director seems like a big fan.

But strangely, it is his latest that bears the touch of the great Russian director.

Here he seems to be channelling two very different films: Solaris (1972), with its exploration of a ‘living’ planet affecting human emotions, and The Celebration (1998), Thomas Vinterberg’s hellish depiction of a family gathering, which still stands as the highpoint of the Dogme movement Von Trier helped create.

But Melancholia has its own unique charms and manages to capture the Dane at his very best – he never takes the material too seriously, but also isn’t afraid to indulge in big, bold strokes.

The wedding section is filmed with his puckish sense of humour that often drives his detractors crazy: not only do the happy couple struggle to even reach the party in their limousine, but when they get there, discover that no-one is really happy anyway.

Opting for a handheld shooting style, after the slow-motion imagery at the beginning, the director has a lot of fun with the tacky misery of the event: the meaningless counting of beans, unhappy relationships and fruitless driving around in golf carts create a tangible atmosphere.

Rarely has despair been so joyously captured on screen.

But there is something more here than Von Trier just having a cheap dig at the shallow pretensions of the rich: he is making a wider point about human emotions, our capacity for self-delusion and the wisdom of despair. Speaking of emotions, according to Cine Vue some films are able to make us smell scents and feel other sensations apart from the audio-visual experience.

If we are going to die and life is meaningless anyway, surely it is the natural condition?

As the second half of the film progresses, Christine appears to grow stronger as her misery gives way to a higher wisdom about her situation and that of the planet.

This could have been what he was aiming for in Antichrist, in which nature was a chaotic force that ‘reigned’ over the humans.

But here he seems a little more focused as wider cosmic forces in the shape of a rogue planet come to affect the central characters – but instead of shrill hysteria and genital mutilation we get a richer reflection on life and existence.

Both films could be seen as a therapy double-bill for the director – who has talked about his battles with depression over the last few years – but with Melancholia he seems to be taking his foot off the accelerator and his work feels all the better for it.

Coming across as a darker, more subversive version of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), it is a perfectly pitched antidote to the traditional ‘movie wedding’ (frequently a virus-like staple of US romantic comedies) and sprinkled with a pleasingly arch mood.

This is matched by some great locations and production design: the use of Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden is inspired, providing a visually interesting backdrop, with its immaculately tendered golf course, claustrophobic interiors and frequently stunning exteriors, which revolve around atmospheric night scenes of the ever encroaching blue planet.

Dunst gives a career-best performance, convincingly showing her character’s descent into depression and subsequent stoic acceptance of impending global doom, whilst Gainsbourg is equally strong as a more naïvely empathetic character.

Their chemistry as sisters is physically unlikely, but emotionally believable and as the film progresses they provide some of the best acting in a Von Trier film since Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1995).

Although he often gets criticised for torturing his female characters, he frequently manages to draw emotionally brave performances from them, unlike many directors working in the mainstream.

In the supporting cast, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling have small but juicy roles as bickering parents whilst Kiefer Sutherland brings considerable depth to his delusional rich, husband who struggles to keep up the veneer that everything will be OK.

The film could be seen as an extended metaphor for the depressed artist (namely Von Trier himself), in that no-one really believes Justine when she is ill and her advertiser bosses are always asking what her next project might be.

That is one valid interpretation, but its hard not see the film as Von Trier pointing out the craziness of polite society (ironically the people who go to see his films) and how it is the seemingly unhinged who cope the best when truly bad things happen.

Given that there is no evolutionary reason for depression, an ailment which often leads to self-destruction, perhaps it is a painfully valuable reminder of our mortality?

Such heady ideas are expressed with considerable skill as Von Trier interchanges a rough and ready visual style, with some stunningly beautiful sequences, which include helicopter shots and slow-motion tableau.

It almost provides a snapshot of his own career, as the rough Dogme aesthetic of his earlier work blends with a lush beauty that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro assists with some stunning digital images throughout – this was one of the first films to shoot on Arri’s Alexa camera – whilst the visual effects of the encroaching planet supervised by Peter Hjorth evoke an appropriate sense of wonder and awe.

All this marks a highpoint in Von Trier’s career, which is all the more shame that he undid a lot of that hard work by making some foolishly ill-placed jokes at the launch of the film in Cannes.

He clearly wasn’t being serious when he jokingly called himself a Nazi, said he understood Hitler and made some inappropriate remarks about Susanne Bier, as well as ‘planning a hardcore porn movie’ with Dunst and Gainsbourg.

But given the particular sensitivities still felt in France about the Holocaust and the instantaneous nature of modern news, it was an ugly episode in which Von Trier’s bad-boy act came back to haunt him as he was banned from the festival.

Typically, Von Trier has since played up his persona non grata status, but forget the off-screen nonsense and enjoy what is an unexpectedly beautiful vision of the apocalypse.


Cannes Festivals News

The Lars Von Trier Nazi Controversy

Director Lars Von Trier caused controversy by making jokes about Hitler at the Cannes press conference for his latest film.

Melancholia is a “psychological disaster drama” about the dispute between two sisters (played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a rogue planet hurtles towards Earth.

It screened for the press this morning and whilst the Danish director usually divides opinion, it got some of the more positive notices of his recent career.

When Von Trier turned up at the press conference with the word ‘fuck’ printed on his hand it may have seemed like his usual provocative behaviour.

For about 20 minutes, the press conference passed by with the usual questions from the foreign press to the filmmaker and actors.

It should be noted that questions during press conferences at Cannes can be unbelievably tedious and anodyne, which is why Von Trier perhaps decided to stir things up around the 20 minute mark.

He claimed he was making an explicit porn film with Kirsten Dunst, which elicited nervous laughter from the actress and journalists, and how it would be connected with the Church (this really has to be heard for the full effect).

So far, it was Von Trier playing his usual games, which I suspect he does to confuse, annoy and create publicity at the world’s biggest film festival.

But 3 minutes towards the end Von Trier proceeded to make, even by his own standards, some pretty inflammatory remarks.

When asked by Kate Muir of The Times about a previous comment he made regarding his interest in ‘Nazi asthetic’ in his films Von Trier said:

“I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew. Then later on came Susanne Bier [Jewish and Danish director] and then suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. No, that was a joke, sorry. But it turned out I was not a Jew but even if I’d been a Jew I would be kind of a second rate Jew because there is kind of a hierarchy in the Jewish population. But anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German … which also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end”

At this point Dunst (sitting next to him) seemed physically uncomfortable, prompting Von Trier to say that there would be a point to his jokey ramblings.

“I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews. I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, …how can I get out of this sentence?”

He then expressed admiration for Nazi architect Albert Speer before ending another rambling sentence with:

“OK, I’m a Nazi.”

Peter Howell of the Toronto Sun then asked whether he would make a movie even bigger in scale than Melancholia:

“Yeah, that’s what we Nazis … we have a tendency to try to do things on a greater scale. Yeah, may be you could persuade me …the final solution with journalists.”

I don’t think any sane person would take Von Trier’s comments literally but many around the world would certainly take offence at his flippant joking about the mass murder and genocide of World War II.

The festival were quick to issue a press release:

“The Festival de Cannes was disturbed about the statements made by Lars von Trier in his press conference this morning in Cannes. Therefore the festival asked him to provide an explanation for his comments. The director states that he let himself be egged on by a provocation. He presents his apology. The direction of the festival acknowledges this and is passing on Lars von Trier’s apology. The festival is adamant that it would never allow the event to become the forum for such pronouncements on such subjects.

Then followed an apology from Von Trier’s official apology:

“If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologise. I am not anti-semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.”

Although this will undoubtedly get Von Trier and his latest film a lot of worldwide press, how it affects his career will be an open question.

A lot of people in the film world will dismiss this as the usual provocative statement that Von Trier is fond of making.

He angered some US critics with his trilogy about America – Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) – as they presented an ironic flipside of the American dream and the director proudly claimed he had never been to the country.

In 2009, Antichrist scandalised some of the audience in Cannes with scenes of explicit sex and violence, whilst the ensuing press conference became rather heated.

Although a talented director, he remains a cinematic prankster who seems to revel in the publicity he gets for making provocative films and statements.

But this time he has made comments which, although intended as some kind of joke, will reverberate around the world.

Given that Mel Gibson was in Cannes last night maybe they should team up for a project?

> Reviews of Melancholia at Cannes 2011
> Lars Von Trier at Wikipedia

Cinema Thoughts


Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist

By now you may well have heard of Antichrist, the new film from Danish director Lars Von Trier that upset a lot of people at the Cannes film festival and has surfed to UK cinemas on a big, fat wave of controversy.

However, what you have been witnessing is merely the gears of the filmic chattering classes being cleverly manipulated by a cunning provocateur.

The story involves a couple simply called He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods, where they hope to repair their relationship after their child has died.

Given that this place is called ‘Eden’ and that the two central characters are not even named, you would be correct in thinking that we are back in the pseudo-parable territory of  Von Tier’s previous work like Dogville.

It then unfolds in a series of chapters titled ‘Grief’, ‘Pain’, ‘Despair’ and ‘The Three Beggars’ in which Defoe’s character (a psychotherapist) tries to cure his traumatised wife with increasingly disastrous results.

As their relationship breaks down, this emotional chaos is reflected in the outside world of the forest, with even animals saying ominous things.

When it first screened at Cannes many in the audience were appalled at the graphic sex, violence and the perceived misogyny of the director.

But if you actually go and see the film (unlike the complete clown at the Daily Mail who denounced it without seeing it), you may wonder what all the fuss and heated commentary has actually been about.

Whilst there are possibly two graphic moments that will upset those of a nervous disposition, they aren’t anything that horrendous compared to the violence in modern horror films like Hostel, Saw or even The Passion of the Christ.

For various boring reasons I couldn’t make the press screening and instead went to see it at a local art-house cinema showing it.

Watching with a paying audience can often be a lot more interesting than catching it with journalists ready to add to the already high-pitched chatter, so part of me was curious as to how it would go down.

When two older women sat in the row behind me I was wondering if there would be a mini-repeat of the now infamous Cannes premiere.

Would there be boos? Perhaps an invasion of militant feminists? Maybe even Daily Mail writers led by Baz Bamigboye would storm the building with pitchforks?

Unsurprisingly none of this happened at the late afternoon screening I was at and furthermore, the supposedly shocking moments were not actually that shocking.

The first sequence has upset some viewers becuase it slowly juxtaposes the two main characters having sex whilst their young child jumps out of a window to his death, all to the strains of Handel.

But tragic though the event is in the context of the film, is it really that offensive?

In Cruising (1980) William Friedkin chose to intercut gay porn with characters getting stabbed in the back by a gay serial killer (not the most subtle moment of his career), whilst the climax of Munich (2005) saw Steven Spielberg intercut a slow-motion sex scene with the massacre of the Israeli hostages.

So, you’ll have to excuse me if I didn’t find it new or shocking. If seeing a dying child on screen is so bad, then where where the howls of outrage at Pan’s Labyrinth or Assault on Precinct 13.

The shot in this sequence that is going to make the sex-averse MPAA unhappy is one which involves porn-like erect penetration.

But even that isn’t really a big deal – one of the women behind me merely let out an excited ‘ooooooh!’ when that happened, so I don’t think we need to get too hung up about it.

The other two moments that ‘scandalised’ the Cannes crowd involved two intimate parts of the male and female anatomy.

When it the story kicks in to the final straight, Defoe’s character is knocked unconscious and has his penis damaged by his (by then) deranged wife.

For good measure she decides to masturbate him, which results in a bloody ejaculation, which (although not pleasant to watch) isn’t exactly as bad as it sounds given that it is shot in a matter of fact style.

The other piece of genital mistreatment is more extreme, as Gainsbourg takes a pair of scissors to her clitoris and performs an act you will never see unless Eli Roth gets to guest-direct an episode of Casualty.

Is it shocking? For that moment it is, but no less than many other films that have featured body parts being cut off.

Mainstream multiplex fodder can often feature such graphic violence: Watchmen has a brutal sequence in which someone’s arms are sawn off, whilst the climax of Hostel 2 features someone’s genitals getting cut off and fed to a dog amongst numerous other graphic body horrors.

But I’m guessing that the combination of the ‘holiest of holies‘ (as Samuel L Jackson’s Jules described it in Pulp Fiction) and the air of controversy surrounding this film has given it extra dimension of notoriety.

As for the misogyny charges, this is something that is regularly hurled at Von Trier, often by people who seem influenced by the more ludicrous elements of post-modern ‘film theory’, have a Freudian’ interest in his background or simply don’t like the look and feel of his films.

He is a filmmaker who has a natural tendency to bait and provoke his audiences, be it the presentation of religion and marriage in Breaking the Waves, disability in The Idiots or the depiction of American culture in Dancer in the Dark and Dogville.

The fact that he seems to derive active pleasure from the critics who get so angry at his work just pisses them off even more, but to me this irreverent attitude is part of what gives his work an extra fizz and bite.

In the case of Antichrist, these two things have collided as the basic story – woman goes mad in the woods – seems to be a cinematic red rag tailor made for those that loathe his films.

I don’t feel his works generally – including this one – are misogynistic, but they do try to rile viewers who have an outdated 1970s view of what feminism is or was.

If a male critic couldn’t entertain the possibility that a female viewer could ever like Antichrist, who is actually being sexist?

The fact that views like this come a critical community that is – in the UK at least – overwhelmingly male, merely adds to the irony.

With his latest, Von Trier clearly seems to be screwing around with the mysogny accusations as well as the certain kind of liberal mindset that espouses them. (For a rough idea of this mindset, think of the liberal commentariat who get very upset at things like Brass Eye and Bruno).

Gainsbourg’s character in the story was working on a thesis about women in history (and comes to some startling ‘revelations’) whilst her husband is a therapist who believes he can cure her with things like ‘roleplay’.

I won’t give away the climax but it feels like a calculated middle finger to a certain kind of chin stroking, academic feminism but also to the idea that pyschological problems can be cured by talking about them.

In short the kind of people who think 1968 was the most important year in human history will likely hate this film.

Surely it is this – allied with the sexual violence – that has got people denouncing and praising Antichrist since May.

But if we strip away all the commentary that has dominated the wider perception of this film then the fact that remains is that this is a dissapointment.

Somehow, in trying to outdo his own brand of wry shock-making, Von Trier has unleashed a boomerang that has come back to hit him on the head.

The narrative of the film is too flat and never allows the characters to live and breathe, meaning that too much of it consist of banal talk in rooms and not enough action (although, ironically much of the hoo-hah has been about the scenes where stuff does go on).

The result is that sections of the film just drag and whilst things heat up considerably, it never recovers as a whole.

That said, there is much to admire here visually: Antony Dodd Mantle’s cinematography is highly impressive, using digital cameras (such as the RED One) in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before on the big screen.

The crisp clarity of the images (especially close ups of the actor’s faces) and the changing colour palette were striking, indeed a lot more interesting than what was coming out of the actor’s mouths.

But that said, Defoe and Gainsbourg do deserve a lot of credit for throwing themselves into their roles with such energy commitment.

Although they are let down by the writing this cannot have been an easy film to make or watch for them.

As for Von Trier, when all the brouhaha subsides, this will not go down as one of his better films.

It never appears to have an identity of its own and, at worst, almost it feels like a pastiche of his earlier work.

A protracted sequence involving a stone feels unintentionally comic (a satirical take on the ball and chain stuff in Dogville?) and as for the very end scene. WTF Lars?

Don’t be fooled by the controversy, just notice the drop in quality.