IMAGES OF LIBERATION. Lars von Trier’s Images of Liberation may be the most brilliant graduate film ever. It predicts what this graduate of the National Film School of Denmark has become: one of the half-dozen greatest living filmmakers.
Daringly original, it nonetheless evokes films the student loves: Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974), John Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Imagine being a kid in film school and having your graduation effort win the best film prize at Munich!
World War II; the German Occupation of Denmark ends. Trier’s Images interweaves archival footage of Danish resistance fighters and the story of a German officer, who (after failing to summon the courage to commit suicide) flees Danish arrest in frantic search for the Danish girl he loves. The tables have turned, with some Danes now behaving like vicious Nazis. Fiction tests documentary; documentary tests fiction. Heroism; cowardice. Will Leo find his Esther?
The end of war encapsulates the horror of war: German soldiers commit suicide after obligingly killing their own. Stirringly, a solitary bird symbolizes Denmark’s survival. Or Germany’s defeat.
Mysterious, achingly lyrical and yet chillingly analytical as well, Images explores issues of humanity and national identity. In war, everything is as fluid as blood. The end of war memorializes the horror of war. In this context, relief and liberation are sorely ironic.
In film school, Trier adopted the “von.” Why? Earlier in the century, Erich Stroheim and Josef Sternberg did this, claiming the nobility that was denied them, as Jews, by Europe. Trier, now, was expressing his solidarity with the departed two—and, through them, with all Jews: a noble gesture.
The lone bird in Trier’s first masterpiece: Jewry’s survival?
THE ELEMENT OF CRIME. The first installment in his dark “European trilogy,” Lars von Trier’s The Element of Crime is among the most sorrowful crime detection works in cinema—a film in which murder weighs heavily as the loss of human life, not as an entertaining occasion for crime-solving ingenuity. Summoned by Osborne, his mentor, ex-cop Fischer investigates the serial murders of young girls selling lottery tickets. Proceeding “by the book,” in this case, Osborne’s treatise on criminal behavior, and assisted by hypnosis that projects him into the killer’s mind, Fischer retraces the steps of a suspect based on past police surveillance of him.
The suspect’s name is Harry Gray, an amalgamation of David Gray, who investigates vampires in a remote seaside village in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s—Trier’s idol’s—Vampyr (1931), and The Third Man’s (Carol Reed, 1949) postwar opportunist, a black marketeer in penicillin, Harry Lime. These influences suggest the weird, hallucinatory, post-apocalyptic world of bombed-out buildings, scrounging children, and sleepwalking souls through which Fischer moves as in a nightmare. It’s Noir City. Also, partly because something again is rotten in the state of Denmark (or in whatever Scandinavian post the action unfolds), Hamlet is in the heavy air. After all, what is Fischer doing but trying to vindicate Osborne, his surrogate father?
Trier, who enacts the hilarious role of the Schmuck of Ages, and his color cinematographer, Tom Elling, have given the film a strange, haunted look, partly the result of saturating the negative with gold. A glimmer of light may insinuate itself into a bottomlessly dark frame. We feel we are looking into the end of the world, a disintegrating society populated by desperate lives. How can anybody be killing all these children?
Stay tuned. Trier’s brilliant trilogy has only just begun.
MEDEA. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1970 Medea is barbaric, fantastic, political, anthropological. Its theme is cultural collision. Lars von Trier’s version has to contend with an anxiety of influence other than that of Euripedes (or Marx). It is based on a script that fellow Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Trier’s idol, left unfilmed at his death. Moodily poetic and psychological, it shows the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, especially his Nostalghia (1982). To the eye and the soul, in whatever connection, it’s a beautiful film.
Here is perhaps the world’s most famous tale of a woman’s revenge—in ancient Greece, Medea’s murder of their sons after Jason abandons her and them and takes another wife. Medea’s magic brought Jason riches and fame, and the Golden Fleece. But he is “moving on” with his life, as cranky, restless spouses sometimes do. Medea gave Jason stature but relinquished much of her own in the process. Now it is her day to inflict sorrow. By Medea’s design, Jason will be married to a corpse, and his children, hanged with their mother’s tender assistance, will be corpses as well. Medea must settle for nothing less than Jason’s devastation.
But, of course, the overwhelming tragedy is Medea’s. The children do not deserve to die, but cosmic justice, for which Medea is mere agency, demands these deaths. The one constant is Medea’s suffering—a mother’s pain as well as a wife’s.
Trier’s visual poetry stresses Medea’s—a mother’s—continuing connection to Nature. Nonsensical interpretations, to the effect that Medea, a mother, errs by destroying her children, need not apply. It is self-righteous Jason who alone acts contrary to Nature. Only death can bring Medea peace.
Judgments against Medea fade in the vast marsh and fog in which Trier locates/loses her. She is lost along with the rest of us.
EPIDEMIC. Save Vampyr (1931), by another Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Lars von Trier’s Epidemic may be the greatest horror film ever made. It is certainly one of the most playful and visually fetching horror films.
It’s pseudo-cinéma-vérité—a film-within-a-film the boundaries of whose Chinese boxes bend and blur. A film director named Lars (endearingly played by Lars von Trier himself) and his scenarist, Niels (played by Trier’s actual co-scenarist, Niels Vørsel), dream up a medical horror movie, in the dream of which Dr. Mesmer (Trier again), an epidemiologist, battles a disease that in fact he unwittingly spreads. Both films are in black and white; but the objective framing film is shot in 16mm, while the interior dream of a film is shot in luxuriant 35mm. The phenomenal cinematography is by Henning Bendtsen, who photographed Dreyer’s Ordet (1954).
The dream is a nightmare of reality; talk of “mass graves” invokes specters of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the threat of annihilation imposed on us all by the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, the framing film, in which the plague ultimately erupts with the assistance of hypnosis, seems to be catching up with the interior film.
Irrepressibly funny and absolutely terrifying, Epidemic locates individual imagination in the grip of shared political realities. We cannot get away from our worst dreams, our worst imaginings, because they are real and because the paranoid U.S. is ever poised to drop at a whim another stupendous bomb. Art, our principal defense, only returns us to reality. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark because something is rotten elsewhere in the world. Europe exists in a colossal shadow.
This is the second entry in Trier’s “European trilogy” begun with The Element of Crime (1984).
EUROPA. The conclusion of Lars von Trier’s stunning “European trilogy” that began with The Elements of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1988), Europa is like some ghastly prophetic warning that’s couched in such elusive, ambiguous terms that you don’t exactly know how to protect yourself. As Welles did in The Trial (1962), Trier captures, in a stream of highly suggestive, potent black-and-white (and, also, color) images, the helpless way many of us felt in our Century of Sorrows, the twentieth, which thus far is predicting the twenty-first as its unearthly continuation.
Defeated in the war, 1945 Germany is occupied. Leopold Kessler, an American of German descent, relocates to Germany, where an uncle gets him a job as a sleeping car conductor on the Zentropa train line. Soon, Leo becomes the pawn of two competing sides, the Hartmanns, who own the line, and the occupying forces ferreting out former Nazis. Leo’s neutral position becomes untenable once he falls in love with Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa, giving the decade’s most brilliant performance—as she had done in the previous decade, as Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemberg). Post-war, then, eerily feels like pre-war and wartime, with Nazism still an able, if, now, creepily insinuating, force. Max von Sydow’s disembodied narration looms as a voice of doom: European history, which is repetitive, compulsive, tragic. The Holocaust, in particular, strikes Trier as a nightmare there is no coming out of.
One of Trier’s darkest films, Europa (called Zentropa in the States) wraps one up in its grim, gorgeous images (Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse are Trier’s cinematographers), tightening the folds until one feels like a mummy. The glorious impish comic of The Idiots (1998), Trier’s Dogme 95 masterpiece, isn’t in evidence here. He shouldn’t be.
BREAKING THE WAVES. From Denmark, Sweden and elsewhere, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is singularly un-Dogmetic. Each chapter introduction includes recorded rock music, accompanied by a gorgeous bit of computer-enhanced Nature imagery. Moreover, the film is ultimately headed toward the supernatural and special effects. The offspring of atheists, Trier considers himself religious, but in the humanistic manner of his idol, Carl Theodor Dreyer.
In a northern Scottish village, Bess McNeil meets and marries a Danish oil-rig worker, Jan, with whom she shares great sex. Bereft when he returns to work, she prays to God for his permanent return. God seems to answer her prayer in a way that exploits her innocence; a broken neck directs Jan’s return, confining him to a hospital bed, and they are no longer able to have sex. Increasingly she has out-loud, abrupt conversations with God, and she adheres also to her husband’s voice, which directs her to have sex with others for his vicarious pleasure. Thus begins Bess’s descent into a world of danger and degradation that isolates her from family and community, turning them cruelly against her, while welding her to her vows.
Powerful, abrasive, challenging, Trier’s film questions whether sex sublimates religious experience to the same degree that religion sublimates sex. Its hand-held camera usage testifies to the roughness, the unsettledness, of human experience out in the world and in the heart. It explores the possibility of a chasm between God’s formal reception and messy reality. Bess’s pipeline to what she believes is God’s presence may be moving her in the direction of a marvelous redemption. Her example illumines the current fate of pure faith.
As light as spirit, this extraordinary film shows spiritual wonders permeating our modern world. Its centerpiece is Emily Watson’s awesome performance as Bess.
THE IDIOTS. Dazzling, brilliant, hilarious, poignant, Lars von Trier’s Danish Idiots is the masterpiece of Dogme 95, the movement Trier helped found that chooses naturalism and realism over artifice or technical manipulation in order to contest what its adherents see as the falsifying tendencies of individual and technologically obsessive cinema. Thus, location shooting is in, studio shooting, out; films, which must be in color and video recorded, can use no special lighting apart from a single lamp attached to the camera, nor can filters be used, nor can optical work of any kind be applied; no sound can be used apart from sounds that correspond to the images being presented; the camera must be hand-held; the action, contemporary. Trier’s creation of both Dogme- and non-Dogme films suggests he may have been putting us all on (that is, acting like an idiot), but the movement has stuck. Impishly, Trier’s off-screen voice can be heard “seriously” interviewing his fictional characters as though this film is a documentary. Indeed, few films collapse so decisively the difference between fiction and documentary.
The Idiots portrays a commune whose members in public pretend to be mentally challenged—for instance, in a restaurant, at a home insulation factory they tour, at a public swimming pool. Each is searching for his or her inner idiot; idiots, one opines, are the people of the future.
Of course, these young persons are having a blast with their antics. We, however, also get to see the responses they provoke—and, in some cases, the responses ordinary people keep themselves from having. Trier skewers the reactionary social tendency that in the U.S. goes by the name “political correctness”—“liberal” fascism.
It’s exhausting acting like an idiot. Eventually, commune members test the waters of the mainstream. Some make it; some are left behind.
DANCER IN THE DARK. Critic Gavin Smith has called Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark the first “genuinely tragic musical.” While I think G. W. Pabst’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1931) qualifies as that almost seventy years sooner, Dancer in the Dark is neither the frivolous escapism (think Singin’ in the Rain) nor sentimental garbage (think West Side Story) that accounts for the vast majority of musical films. Although its deviation from some of the guidelines that Trier himself devised cost it Dogme 95 certification (the protagonist’s musical fantasies contest the rule requiring objective reality; the film is set in the past), Dancer applies its alert, light-sensitive handheld video camera to dark, substantial stuff. It’s like a demented cross between I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958) and—Dreyer is Trier’s spiritual mentor—Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). One might call it Breaking the Waves in Song and Dance.
In early 1960s America, in rural Washington state, Czech immigrant Selma Jezkóva is a workhorse in a wash-basin factory saving her earnings to pay for an operation that might keep her twelve-year-old son, Gene, from inheriting the same disease that’s causing her own advancing blindness. The single mother had come to America, her heart set on redeeming herself from parental guilt by reversing Gene’s prognosis, and her mind full of Hollywood musicals, which continue to be her one outlet for entertainment. However, she had hoped to find the U.S., also, as light, attractive and hospitable as the musical films had made it seem; now, to escape the drudgery of heavy precision labor, she “spaces out” into reveries of these films, where, magically, she is sometimes the star. (She is also rehearsing the part of Maria in an amateur production of The Sound of Music.) These passages, among the film’s high points, address the role of popular culture in American society as palliative for the harshness, cruelty and unfairness of American life; the almost primitive simplicity of the songs and the dances exposes the insufferable ordeal that Jezkóva finds entangling and strangling her.
Selma isn’t alone in struggling. Her landlord, the local sheriff, reverses his kindness, stealing her savings, under the strain of his own strapped financial resources—a condition he hides from his wife much as Selma hides her failing eyesight, especially at work. Eventually, at his urging, she kills the sheriff. No one believes this suicide-by-proxy; Selma is tried, convicted and hanged for theft and murder. Having refused to convert the money she stole back into payment for an appeals lawyer, she dies believing that her sacrifice will best help her son.
Heaven knows whether this is correct; Gene becomes an orphan. On the other hand, American stupidity and prejudice suggest that no attorney, however skilled, could reverse Selma’s legal fortunes. Americans, Trier insists, are as blind and deaf to the truth as the Scottish villagers in Breaking the Waves (1996).
Trier’s Dancer vividly conveys the crushing monotony, and also the constant danger, of factory work. Moreover, like Dreyer’s Passion, Trier’s film splendidly illustrates the possibility of autonomy and moral action even when a multitude of victimizing forces are arrayed against one. Trier has also mounted one of cinema’s most powerful, heartrending indictments of capital punishment; the irony that the U.S. still adheres to this practice of state murder is a sad coda we ourselves can add to the film’s statement. Another asset is that Björk, Sjón Sigurdsson, Thom Yorke and Trier himself have composed and written the most haunting film songs since Friedrich Holländer’s for Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948). As usual, Trier is amazing with actors, in this instance drawing even from the usually clueless Catherine Deneuve good, solid acting as Kathy, Selma’s co-worker and friend. Most triumphantly, Trier has guided his first-time (and, she says, last-time) film star, Björk, through one of the most enchanting and deeply affecting performances in cinema. The Icelandic pop singer fully deserves her many accolades, including best actress at Cannes, the European Film Awards, the Bodil Festival and, here, from the National Board of Review.
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS. Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier’s former mentor, made in 1967 a documentary short entitled Det perfekte menneske. Now Trier uses it for his own documentary—well, “his own,” except that Leth does most of the work again. Instructing his instructor, Trier challenges Leth to redo The Perfect Human in five different ways, observing rules—“obstructions”—that Trier commands as though he were Instructor-in-Chief-in-the-Heavenly-Skies. But artists are always restricted by rules, even impossible ones, as indeed we all are every day. The black-and-white original appears in snippets throughout the color film.
Leth’s first challenge is to remake the film in Cuba with no set. The principal obstacle is that each shot must be 12 or fewer frames—that is, a half-second or less. (“Satanic,” Trier later calls this restriction of his!) After each revision, the two men reunite so that we can see the result and Trier can tell Leth how well he has done and give him the next assignment. Leth is sent to an impoverished section of Bombay, where he dines lavishly in public. The object is to have Leth “empathize” rather than observe at a distance. Liberating him from the Cuba challenge, a long tracking shot follows Leth down a teeming street. “Not a mark has been left on you,” Trier says, referring to the first three filmlets.
Trier proves a charming, impish bully. We love impudent Lars—and so must Leth, to put up with all this.
Another obstruction has Leth making (with technical help) an animated film in Texas. “I hate cartoons!” both men agree. The result, Trier rightly opines, is beautiful.
Trier will make the last revision, with Leth reading from Trier’s script. The entire project has aimed at helping Leth, Trier claims. We half-believe him.
The abuses of Iraqi prisoners by military and nonmilitary personnel at Abu Ghraib prison, we are learning as I write, were not isolated incidences but broadly typical of American behavior as occupationists or plain bullies both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who knows where else. Understandably, those who have been charged are pleading “the German defense,” that they were merely following the orders of commanding officers, and I don’t doubt for a moment that this is true; but what these individuals who directly committed the atrocities fail to grasp is that they were free to disobey such orders and that the orders they were given must have triggered sadistic and vicious impulses in them without which they would indeed have disobeyed the orders. Their humanity hung in the balance, and they chose to abdicate this humanity, or were so swept up in the powerful authority vis-à-vis prisoners that war and the occupation had invested in them that they failed to curb their worst and most primitive impulses. Regrettably, America and Americans have become, throughout the world, synonymous with this arrogance of power, which the wonderful film Dogville, written and directed by Denmark’s Lars von Trier, penetrates and analyzes brilliantly. It’s the first installment of von Trier’s “American trilogy” (he has since completed the second installment, Manderlay, 2005), following his two previous trilogies, the staggering “European trilogy” (The Element of Crime, 1984; Epidemic, 1988; Europa, 1991), and the “Golden Hearts trilogy,” whose middle film, though, is especially wonderful (Breaking the Waves, 1996; The Idiots, 1998; Dancer in the Dark, 2000).
Trier, perhaps the world’s greatest working film artist (some would give the title to Abbas Kiarostami or Béla Tarr or Hou Hsiao-hsien, or someone else), is one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement. However, put that thought out of your head. As he has done in the past when the mood suited him, for Dogville Trier discards the rules he himself helped to create; for instance, far from hewing to natural lighting, there is nothing but artificial light in Dogville. (Whether this makes the film a departure from Dogme or something post-Dogme remains to be seen.) An imp of the perverse, Trier is ever ready to dismiss any and all rules, including his own. In truth, we wouldn’t have our Trier any other way.
Trier hates America. His non-Dogme Dancer in the Dark also was an American story, and he filmed it without stepping foot in the United States; nor will he come to America to shoot any part of his American trilogy. Trier’s vision of the American character, as disclosed in Dogville, is so acute and exacting, so dead-on and unflinching, that American audiences had better brace themselves for a withering look into a social mirror. In Dogville, Trier nails us to a T. This will invite typical American mendacity and hypocrisy from many quarters—from those, for example, who will insist that what other Americans did at Abu Ghraib prison, which they deem “unAmerican,” they themselves would never ever do. Trier may be in denial about much that is good about America, but U.S. Americans tend to be even more in denial about what’s not so good. Still, it is worth noting that one doesn’t have to agree with Dogville to find it a fascinating and captivating piece of work.
The time is some time between the wars, probably (given the series of photographs that accompany the closing credits) the 1930s during the Great Depression. The place is a sleepy little town in the Rocky Mountains. Fleeing from gangsters, Grace happens into the town of Dogville, seeking refuge. Prodded by its resident young philosopher and would-be writer, Tom Edison, so named because he embodies American ingenuity, Dogville reluctantly lets Grace in, giving her shelter. Seemingly uncomplicated and gracious, young, beauteous Grace aims to please her new protectors; to solidify her place in the town, she is instructed by Tom to insinuate herself into the homes and lives of the residents, offering each individual job-related, household or communally beneficial work. At first, Dogvillers don’t seem to need Grace to do anything; but, assessing the risk of their hiding her from both the mob and the police, who are also looking for her, the folks find increasing amounts of work for her to do. Indeed, they exact a measure of control over her that makes her their Abu Ghraib prisoner—their virtual slave. Their sexual slave, too, for all the men either maul or molest her—all except Tom, who professes to have fallen in love with her, and with whom she, also in love with him, doesn’t wish to have what she considers unsanctified sex. This is exceptionally hard for Tom to process, since he knows that every other man in town is getting a piece of Grace. What they aren’t getting, though, is her spiritual assent, Grace’s grace; at the proper time and in the proper place, she would like to give this to Tom. Unfortunately, forced by fellow villagers to choose between her and the town, Tom contacts the mob, resulting in a scene of betrayal and brutal death.
Dogville plays out on a sound stage; expressionistic, the minimalist set consists of chalk marks, invisible doors that townsfolk open and close and knock on, see-through quarters indicating homes, a wall-less town meeting hall, a patch of invisible trees (although no elms, even on Elm Street), and so forth. Several shots provide overhead views of Dogville, which includes a patch of invisible grass for the invisible town mascot, the dog Moses. Given the plot that unfolds on this set, one might think of the film as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town Meets Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit of the Old Woman. The film also includes voiceover commentary—another nod to Our Town, although here the voice, disembodied, belongs to no visible soul—that guides us through the thinking processes of some of the characters. The net result is to shift the drama from an exterior to an interior realm. We get to see and hear, then, how Americans think, and how they pursue their own advantage at the expense of others, in this case, Grace. Even bereft of an upbeat economy, the villagers retain the rapacious love of power that American capitalism nurtures in them. It is this love, ironically bred by a system that disempowers them, that corrupts them and undercuts their human potential. With its Brechtian distancing, the film constantly urges us to reflect on its vision of the American character. (Another distancing technique: the film is divided into a prologue and nine chapters, the last title heralding the film’s ending.) I might add that, despite what you may have heard, there isn’t a touch of misogynism in Trier’s portrait of the process by which Grace becomes the town’s slave—this, too, the result of his distancing strategies. Those who hurl such preposterous insults are in heavy denial as to what the film is really about. They are probably also in denial of certain of their own thought processes and psychological mechanisms.
The film is full of perverse visual imagery. Perhaps the most beautiful and voluptuously intriguing image is provided by an overhead shot of Grace, lying face up in the open part of a truck trying to make her escape from Dogville, surrounded by crates of apples and by loose apples and encased by a translucent plastic or glass cover: with its Edenic reference, a chaotic view of her endangered innocence. At the other end of the film’s behavioral richness, there is Jason, the bad little boy who coaxes an over-the-lap spanking from Grace, pleading for her to make it harder and harder. (He later tells his mom what Grace did, leaving out the part about his having begged for it: one of the numerous betrayals someone or another inflicts upon Grace.) Trier casts in the part—make of this what you will—a boy who is the spittin’ image of what he himself must have been as a boy. Big Lars has thus endeavored to have Little Lars spanked on screen, and the moment is as dear as it’s funny, and not a little spooky. In its small way, the moment shows that Grace herself is as susceptible to being seduced by power-focused impulses as are the others in Dogville, and this lightly prepares us for the heavy finale where a gun-toting Grace turns the tables on the town.
Nicole Kidman (best actress, Russian Guild of Film Critics) is superb as Grace, giving perhaps her most sensitive, delicate and intricate, yet powerful performance thus far. It has long since become clear that Kidman is one of the best actresses around, and she continues to astonish. And Trier has given her an unforgettable line that, at the last, coolly conflates Grace and Nicole: “Goodbye, Tom.” John Hurt is essential as the narrator, Paul Bettany is as interesting as Tom Edison as he is dishwater-dull as the ship’s surgeon who operates on himself in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003), Philip Baker Hall is even more interesting as Tom’s hypochondriac physician-dad, and Ben Gazzara is magnificent—it’s his best performance since Saint Jack (Peter Bogdanovich, 1979)—as the town’s blind man who doesn’t miss a chance to feel up Grace. Harriet Andersson, Stellan Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, Zeljko Ivanek, Lauren Bacall and James Caan are others in the excellent supporting cast.
Dogville, which is in English, won the Bodil Award as the year’s best Danish film and best film prizes in Italy, Spain, Russia and Bulgaria. Trier won the European Film Award as best director, and his screenplay was adjudged the best at the Robert Festival in Copenhagen.
MANDERLAY. The follow-up to Dogville (2003) in what was going to be his U.S.A.—Land of Opportunity trilogy, Lars von Trier’s Manderlay marshals again minimalism and Brechtian distancing, this time for a powerful parable about the residual fallout from slavery in the United States. Indeed, this may be the most brilliant film ever made about the situation and the plight of African Americans in the U.S.
In 1933, on a remote Alabaman plantation, slavery is still practiced. With a can-do liberal attitude, Grace, who has chanced upon Manderlay with her gangster-father, proceeds to liberate the place, bringing there ideas of equality and democracy. She conducts classes to ready workers for the greater world; but will that “world,” the white U.S., ever be “ready” to embrace blacks as equals? Given its ideational underpinnings and its ongoing, if transmuted evil, can American slavery ever be “undone”?
Uproariously, some individuals have faulted the film for not offering solutions to U.S. racial problems. Such viewers cannot grasp the enormity of the winds of history, conjured by Trier in a recurrent dust storm. Not everything is fixable. Slavery isn’t a washable stain in the American fabric.
Manderlay and its operation are not what they seem. Its black workers, seemingly so backward, prove themselves keenly understanding of the tragic course that the nation continues to take, perhaps must always take, both at home and abroad. Grace, who believes she is educating them, is exposed for her utter lack of grace.
This is among Trier’s most sweepingly visionary works. The earthen tones of its restrained color scheme hit a sore point of irony when the womenfolk, including Grace, ward off starvation by eating dirt. But Grace also engineers Manderlay’s eventual profitability—yet another sore point, it turns out, in the scheme of things.
THE BOSS OF IT ALL. Denmark’s Lars von Trier is contemporary cinema’s imp of the perverse. Inspired by Pirandello and Brecht, his Direktøren for det hele takes aim at theatrical acting and big business. By targeting each through the other, this dazzlingly clever comedy suggests that capitalism is a charade, a soulless, convoluted performance.
Ravn owns and runs an information technology firm in Copenhagen. His employees, however, do not know this; Ravn has misled them into believing that “their boss,” the fiction behind which he hides the better to exploit them and draw loyalty, is based in the U.S. Now that he wishes to sell the company, Ravn has hired an actor to be the presumed “boss of it all.”
A flop in his chosen field, Kristoffer takes this role very seriously. Whereas Ravn simply wants Kristoffer-as-Svend to sign the sales agreement, Kristoffer wants to assume his role from the inside out. He does his best to glean bits of information about Svend from employees (one of these bits is that Svend is gay) and enrages the Icelandic company president with his presumptuous antics during their negotiations. The discrepancy between the Icelandic president’s tantrums and the translator’s calm shows that Trier knows his Chaplin, in particular, The Great Dictator (1940). Indeed, Trier’s boardroom scenes are maniacally funny.
Poor Lars must have suffered thusly himself, dealing with actors who aren’t content with being his pawns and who pushed to have their roles take over his plans! On the other hand, Trier finds outrageous Ravn’s lies, deceptions, schemes.
Utilizing a computerized camera process called Automavision, Trier creates a rapid series of cuts and the appearance of suddenly changed camera distances and angles; simulated jump-cuts are accompanied by uninterrupted dialogue, snapping us to analytical attention and increasing our delight.
ANTICHRIST. I don’t know if this has any relevance, but She and He, the nonparticular names of the couple in Danish writer-director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a student of witchcraft and her maddeningly rational spouse, a mental therapist, were also what names we were given for the fleeting interracial lovers, a French actress/anti-nuclear activist and a Japanese businessman, in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), written by Marguerite Düras. Or how about this: She is played in Trier’s film by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose misfit, Janine Castang, in The Little Thief (Claude Miller, 1988), the film that put her on the map, bears the initials J. C., while He is played by Willem Dafoe, Martin Scorsese’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Either actor or each, or combinately both, play the title character in Trier’s film, which Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf helped inspire—the one with the Pied-Piper Rat-Wife and the central death of a child while his parents, neglecting his care, are busy making love. Trier’s English-language film, which reverses his announced retirement, is from Denmark, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and Poland. It won the best film Bodil Award for Trier, as well as the top prize from the Nordic Council, and Trier won three prizes at the Robert Festival: best film, direction, script.
The film consists of three segments—“Grief,” “Pain,” “Despair”—flanked by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue is in black and white (though, mostly, gray and white, into which much seems to be disappearing) and is silent, except for the welling sorrow and solemn beauty on the soundtrack of “Lascia ch’io pianga,” an aria from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. She and He, in crosscut freeze frames, are responding to one another sexually in the shower, whose water, contesting the freeze frames, eerily descends in diffuse motion. The couple are now in bed, so absorbed in their sex that they neglect their young son in the next room. (Their ecstasy already looks like grief.) The boy falls out the window—it almost seems a deliberate act—to his death. Accepting no responsibility for this outcome (like the father in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, 1973), He tends to his guilt-racked wife; but, of course, He may be suppressing his own sense of guilt. We are now in “Grief,” and we hear sound, including spoken dialogue, and we see color. What we feel, if we are cinéastes like Lars von Trier, is loss—the loss of the innocence of the prologue, the loss of silent cinema. What delicate poignancy the opening movement of Antichrist achieves, haunted further by the use of lyrical slow motion.
In “Grief,” He begins his self-aggrandizing stint as She’s 24-hour-a-day therapist; he is as taken up by his role here as he was by their sex on that fateful day. From the start, He seems to be leading She to conclusions He has predetermined. “Let’s make a list of all the things you are afraid of,” He so literally, reasonably suggests; “Can’t I just be afraid without a definite object?” She more accurately, intuitively, philosophically counters and contests. As the film proceeds, with the couple’s retreat into their cabin in the woods, called Eden, increasingly it appears that He, perhaps unconsciously, aims to torture She, perhaps because, perhaps unconsciously, he blames her for their son’s death, and She thus increasingly battles him, to destroy him before he can destroy her. Trier’s film descends into a catalogue of disgusting visual horrors that are correlative to the couple’s mutual combat and course of destruction. I confess: the film became too much for me as I engaged the couple’s reciprocity. Is He fearful of She, that perhaps she might destroy him as she destroyed (in his view) their son, while at the same time he is fearful of himself for having these thoughts and motivation? Is the film all being done with psychic mirrors? “Chaos reigns,” after all, a talking fox at one point says, undercutting She’s conviction that she is finally cured of her grief—and we realize that the fox’s announcement applies, also, to the earlier shower scene, where “Chaos rains.” Another image has a crow pecking at the dead bodies of its young, correlative to He’s announcement that Nature is consuming them both “inside” and “out.” Perhaps the most violent moment arrives when She castrates her mate with a pounding block of wood. Up close, the camera doesn’t blink.
The epilogue restores the silence and black and white. (The Handel aria is also back.) This may be a happy ending.
Whether in monochrome or color, Anthony Dod Mantle’s contribution (best cinematography: European Film Awards, Bodil Awards, Robert Festival) is eerily lovely.
MELANCHOLIA. The blue planet Melancholia has been (to earthly eyes) hiding behind the sun, is repressed, suppressed, the result being, for Justine on her wedding day and night, self-doubt and debilitating anxiety; but, possibly on a collision course with Earth, Melancholia may assert itself, testing humanity’s responses, whether to one another, their presumed certainties and uncertainties, or imminent death. The illimitable mystery that Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier achieves in what may be his masterpiece, Melancholia, derives from the indefinable relationship in it between humanity and cosmos—which is a projection of the other, or is each projecting the other?—and among humanity.
Even on her wedding day, at the wedding party, her boss, the owner of the advertising firm for which she works, tries to squeeze work out of Justine, coupling this attempt with the announcement of his promotion of her—all of this an encapsulation of the monstrous egotism of capitalism. Can such a man have imagined the cosmos? Meanwhile, Justine’s long-divorced parents, an embittered mother and an oblivious, footloose father, may be casting the die on their daughter’s marriage. Before the sun comes up, Justine will have her “wedding night” with someone other than her spouse, tell off her boss and chuck the job, lose her marriage before it has begun when her bridegroom walks out on her, and be told by Claire, her sister, whose astronomically inclined spouse, John, has footed the bill (as he reminds his sister-in-law) for wedding, dinner and bash, “Sometimes I hate you so much.” Trier, we’ve always known, takes a dim view of human nature, in part for the gods himans think they are.
Hysterically undone, in the second part of the two-part film (“Justine,” “Claire”), Justine is living at her sister’s mansion, the scene of the “failed feast,” her wedding celebration. Claire holds Justine together until she, terrified of Melancholia’s possibly imminent collision with Earth, herself becomes unglued. Now Justine, seeing no great tragedy in Earth’s end, given its “evil” nature, is the calm one (call it resignation), prompting Claire to tell her again, “Sometimes I hate you so much.” Meanwhile, know-it-all John, who, believing science and scientists, has assured everyone there will be no such collision, cannot face the alternative, and it is left to Justine to draw his and Claire’s young son, poignantly, into fear-subsiding magical fantasy as Melancholia does indeed rearrange its own orbit—or is this God’s handiwork?—and approach Earth in its final assault: one of the most fiercely, ironically beautiful visions conjured by cinema.
Beauteous Kirsten Dunst (best actress, Cannes, National Society of Film Critics) is phenomenal as Justine, whether quiveringly sensitive or concentrated and taut. Charlotte Gainsbourg is excellent as Claire. Charlotte Rampling, 45 years past Georgy Girl and playing nasty again as the mom, stirs up nostalgic memories; but I prefer the humane characters this marvelous actress played in between.
Best Film, National Society of Film Critics.