The end of The Word

Ordet – The Word (1955) dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer OrdetCarl Theodoe Dreyer’s final scene in The Word centers around the resurrection of Inger from her casket. The scene leaves us with a scene of awe, wonder, and hope for life after death. The Word‘s style ensures that the miracle is both narratively sound and emotionally shocking.

The “long takes and slow camera movements” help to “prepare the spectators for the miracle.” (Tybjerd) They bring us out of the quick cuts we’re used to and into a more meditative, reverent space. This spaces allows us to think about our own beliefs. The camera’s pace also mirrors the pace appropriate for a funeral, where we talk slowly and speak slowly. It encourages us to recall funerals from our own memories and liken them to Inger’s – and to anticipate our own. The religious, ponderous atmosphere encourages us to ponder the film’s ideas of faith.

Ordet - Preben Lerdorff RyeThe power of the miracle also comes from its contrast from the rest of the film, which is stark and realistic. Dreyer “did a great deal of research and shot his exteriors on location, seeking to create a stylized, abstracted realism.” (Tybjerd) It would be easy for us to dismiss a miracle if it came in a fantasy movie. But Dreyer makes The Word feel true to life. Johannes seems an unlikely miracle-worker; Dreyer gives him a harshness and makes sure the audience believes he is crazy rather than actually being Jesus, as he claims. When the miracle does happen, we don’t hear angels singing or see a light from the heavens. Instead, “the miracle of resurrection is expressed with such earthy, realistic simplicity and concentrated emotional intensity.” (Granhøj) Inger’s resurrection feels like a real miracle – one that challenges our beliefs.

Tybjerg, Casper, “Sound film and Dreyer’s career as filmmaker,” Scandanavian Film and Television, Web,

Granhøj, Birgit. Carl Th. Dreyer – The Man and His Work, “The Word.” Accessed February 16, 2014.

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Uncertain Detectives

Zodiac (2007) dir. David Fincher

The Five Orange PipsThe 1891 Sherlock Holmes story “The Five Orange Pips” is loaded with some of the genre’s most delicious tropes. It spans two continents, includes a secret society, two mysterious deaths, a will and a locked room mystery. Holmes, true to form, solves the mystery without even leaving his home.

Or at least believes he has solved it. He sends a telegram to a ship he thinks the murderers are traveling on. But it sinks before he has the chance to confirm his theory.

TV Tropes points out that this is hardly the only mystery Holmes could not solve. The website quotes Doctor Watson’s explanation in the 1922 story “The Problem of Thor Bridge,”

The Five Orange Pips“Some, and not the least interesting, were complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader. Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world. No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew. A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.”

Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle knew his work is unrealistic. But he (and his avatar Watson) also knew Holmes’s failures would not make for popular stories.

zodiac - jake gyllenhaal robert downey jrZodiac, like “The Five Orange Pips,” contains a large number of detective tropes. It starts out like a horror film, grabbing our attention with a graphic murder. We have puzzles, an eager amateur detective, and puzzles left in a newspaper. But the traditional detective framework breaks down as the film drags on. By the end of the movie, we don’t know much more than we did half an hour in. We think we know who the killer could be, but we’re not sure.

In one scene, the police force goes to see Dirty Harry at a theater; a fantasy based loosely on the Zodiac murders, but with a cop who doesn’t follow procedure, and who doesn’t leave any room for uncertainty about guilt or innocence.

Fincher’s movie confronts us with the contrast between the real world of the real-life Zodiac killer and the false world of the movies. Outside the theater, not only are detectives often wrong, but so are prosecutors, judges and juries.

Professionals used to complain that the Sherlock Holmes novels led laypeople to demand unrealistic results from forensic science. Now, there are dozens of conflicting studies about the “CSI Effect.”

Perry Mason - Raymond BurrFrom The American University Law Review, in 1991:

“There is one problem that I call the Perry Mason syndrome. A lawyer who specialized in defending white collar defendants told me what happened when he unexpectedly list a case and his client was convicted. He went up, just shattered, to a juror and asked, “What happened?” The juror said, “When you cross-examined the prosecution’s key witness, you did not get him to confess.” The lawyer realized that here is a real Perry Mason fan, and the real-life lawyer had not measured up.”

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Lawrence, Kierkegaard, and the limits of self-invention

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) dir. David Lean

ImageThe mystery  of Lawrence of Arabia is the person of Lawrence himself.  He is charismatic and captivating, but who is he?  New York Times critic Bosley Crowther famously complained in his 1962 review of the film, “We know little more about this strange man when it is over than we did when it begins.”

I believe we can find a key to the problem of Lawrence in the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  His 1841 graduate dissertation On the Concept of Irony warns of the dangers of “living poetically” – a type of life that Lawrence appears to have followed.  Kierkegaard’s thesis suggests that we might feel like we know little about Lawrence because by the time the war ended, there simply wasn’t much about Lawrence left to know.

(Note: I refer to the 1992 translation of Kierkegaard’s writings by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.)


What is “living poetically?”

Kierkegaard examines the idea of “living poetically” in the section of The Concept of Irony titled Irony after Ficthe.  In it, Kierkegaard takes aim at a group of young people who live a life of detachment, Kierkegaard explains in a footnote, “I use the terms ‘irony’ and ‘ironist'; I could just as well say ‘romanticism’ and romanticist.'”

They are dreamers who believe they can do anything and be anything they choose, regardless of their surroundings, personal histories, or concrete realities. Essentially, these are people who take motivational GIFs seriously.

Kierkegaard’s example comes from a novel called Lucinde, by Friedrich Schlegel. Lucinde tells the story of the libertine Julian, who attaches himself to a woman named Lisette, in order to learn more about sex.  Although Lisette’s life in the novel revolves around sex, she does not ascribe much emotional importance to it – instead, it is an arbitrary part of her identity that she has chosen arbitrarily.

Sexual licentiousness was far from uncommon in literature, even in the 19th Century.  Kierkegaard’s objection is not that of a puritan complaining about restoration theater.  In fact, he writes:

“There is a moral prudery, a straitjacket, in which no reasonable person can move.  In God’s name, let it break to pieces. Conversely, there are the moonlit theater marriages of exaggerated romanticism for which nature at least can have no purpose and whose unproductive labor pains and weak embraces are of no more service to Christian than to pagan counties. Just give irony a free rein against anything like that. But Schlegel does not limit his attack to only that kind of falsity.”

Kierkegaard takes aim at Schlegel’s characters because they try and invent their own sexual identities on the basis of whims, rather than develop them as an expression of their authentic selves. Schlegel’s characters consciously choose their destiny based on what they consider aesthetically attractive.  For a person living poetically, Kierkegaard writes, “life is a drama, and what absorbs him is the ingenious complication of this drama.  He himself is a spectator, even when he himself is the one acting.”

This type of “poetic living” can most obviously be seen in online personas, which represent real people, but are not the real people themselves.  My Facebook profile does not reflect my personality, but is rather a constructed persona that I created, curating things from my real life based on aesthetic concerns.

Or, take the example of reality show celebrities.  It is impossible to tell where the character ends and the real person begins.  There is little agreement as to how much of the 2011 Kardashian – Humphries relationship was real and how much was staged.  Personally, I doubt Kardashian knows herself.

Self-invention or “self discovery” is currently considered a rite of passage for young Americans. The Onion expertly satirized this in two articles from more than a decade ago – Lesbian Identity Ends Abruptly Mid-Junior Year and College Freshman Cycles Rapidly Through Identities. From the latter article:

“I almost feel bad for introducing him to weed,” said Tim Hiller, Vanderkamp’s friend. “After meeting my friend Sky, Kirk started talking about dropping out of school and joining a Buddhist monastery. Of course, a couple days later, he also said he was going to learn to play bass and get a jam band together. He said the monks would be cool about it.”

Kierkegaard was much less gentle in his critiques:

“many an ironist, before finding rest in nothing, has run through much stranger fata [destines] than the rooter presented in Lucian, which had first been Pythagoras himself, then Aspasia, the dubious beauty from Miletus, then Crates the Cynic, then a king, a beggar, a satrap, a horse, a jackdaw, a frog, and a thousand other things too numerous to mention, then finally a rooster, and that more than once, because it found the most pleasure in being a rooster.”

This isn’t to diminish Kierkegaard’s writing into a screed against 19th-century hipsters.  He warns against poetic living that divorces itself from reality or that creates a persona without a person; in postmodern language, a simulacra without a thing being simulated.  What happens when I take the next step from cultivating an attractive Facebook profile, divorce it from my true self — and then cultivate my life in order to fit what I think might look good on a Facebook profile?

Kierkegaard sees that as nothing less than the destruction of the self.  “in order to really and thoroughly to be able to create himself poetically, the ironist must have no an sich. [in itself]…. Therefore the ironist frequently becomes nothing, because what is not true for God is true for man — out of nothing comes nothing.  But the ironist continually preserves his poetic freedom, and when he notices that he is becoming nothing, he includes that in his poetizing.”

“Irony is indeed free, free from the sorrows of actuality, but also free from its joys, free from its blessing, for inasmuch as it has nothing higher than itself, it can receive no blessing, since it is always the lesser that is blessed by the greater.”

Lawrence of Arabia’s poetic living

It is easy to find filmic examples of characters who attempt poetic living and suffer the fates Kierkegaard describes.  Charles Foster Kane and Barry Lyndon each invest themselves so wholly in their public self-images that they become divorced from reality and their persons disappear behind their personas.  But T.E. Lawrence, as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia, is perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon.  (I will examine Lawrence as written in the screenplay Robert Bolt; not the historical person of T.E. Lawrence)

Lawrence’s poetic life constantly bumps up against reality.  On occasion, Lawrence seems to acknowledge that he’s not living as a human being – and at one point, he tries to reform.  But the lure of being Lawrence of Arabia and leaving Lt. Thomas Lawrence behind is too much.


At the beginning of the film, Lawrence is quickly established as a narcissist.  Actor Peter O’Toole’s upper-class English accent could be called a parody if it weren’t real.  Lawrence sees himself as smartest, best educated man in the Cairo command, and attempts to cultivate that image with a condescending manner.  Even here, before his journey begins, he fails, tripping and knocking over tables – putting into physical form what Kirkegaard said about an ironist who “continually collides with the actuality to which he belongs.”

Sent on a mission to the Arabs, Lawrence decides to re-invent himself as one.  Despite his lack of experience in the desert, he decides to eat and drink as his Bedu guide does – ignoring the bad taste and attempting to brush off the way he can barely ride a camel.  But when his guide is killed for drinking from a well, Lawrence reverts back to his Lt. Lawrence identity. He lashes out, in his natural English imperialism,  “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long they will be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.”

ImageLawrence has composed himself by the time he crosses the desert and is received in Prince Faisal’s tent.  He advises the Prince on how to conquer the area in his own name, without relying on English support.  Faisal calls Lawrence out on his romanticism, telling him “I think you are another one of these desert-loving English.”

Lawrence leads an Arab army to Aqaba, but Sharif Ali rides beside him, taking every opportunity he can to deflate Lawrence’s ego.  Lawrence sees a chance at heroism when he rides back to find Gasim, a man who has been lost in the desert.  He is told that Gasim’s fate is written — but Lawrence doesn’t want to hear about harsh realities.  Instead, he says that “nothing is written,” but promises he will survive and join the army in Aqaba because “that is written, in here,” pointing to his mind.

Lawrence miraculously survives the rescue, earning the admiration of Ali. From here on, Ali is as dedicated to Lawrence’s assumed identity as much as Lawrence is.  Ali tells Lawrence that “for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”  Lawrence confesses that he is the bastard son of a nobleman, but Ali says “it seems to me you are free to choose your own name then.”  Lawrence can escape his past by inventing a new, more romantic identity.  “For irony, there never was a past,” Kierkegaard wrote.

ImageAli burns Lawrence’s clothes, and brings him a new set of robes.  Lawrence rides off and prances about in his outfit, delighting in his new identity.  “What takes the ironist’s time, however, is the solicitude he employs in dressing himself in the costume proper to the poetic character he has poetically composed for himself,” Kierkegaard wrote.  But Lawrence’s bubble of Arabian fantasy is quickly burst – Auda ibu Tayi sees him and laughs at the silly Englishman dancing in an Arab costume.  To add insult, Auda’s young son points out that even he can tell Lawrence is English; a proclamation that makes our would-be Arab’s smile fade.

Auda’s men join Lawrence’s army, and the group advances on Aqaba.  But before they attack, a tribal feud erupts.  Lawrence agrees to execute the instigator.  The condemned man is revealed as Gasim, the very man Lawrence built his image on saving.  “It was written then.”

This pattern continues through the rest of the film.  Lawrence experiences success and grows more confident in his constructed identity.  But then a failure crops up to challenge his ideal.  Lawrence leads the army to conquer Aqaba, but there is no gold.  Lawrence assumes the mantle of a prophet to cross the desert, but he leads his loyal servant to his death. His triumphal re-entry into Cairo is overshadowed by the post-traumatic stress Lawrence cannot suppress.  Lawrence survives an assassination attempt, claiming he can only be killed by “a golden bullet,” and tells Ali he “not just anybody.”  But, he is captured, tortured and sexually assaulted by the enemy.

This last trauma is too much for Lawrence.  He returns to Cairo and asks for a desk job.  But by now, the military command and the British media have both bought into Lawrence’s persona.  He’s given a pep talk and sent back out to lead an attack on Damascus.  At first we wonder if Lawrence has changed.  Ali says he is the same man, but perhaps “humbled.”

ImageWhen we see a news photographer’s truck leading the military charge, we know the familiar pattern has returned – but now with even more deadly consequences.  Lawrence is a hero once again, but his image is shattered by his newly discovered taste of sadomasochism.  At the Tafas Massacre, he shatters Ali’s belief in his persona.  But both Lawrence and the news reporter know the charade must continue.  “Here, let me take your rotten bloody picture for the rotten bloody newspapers,” he mutters.

Those rotten bloody newspapers run Lawrence of Arabia’s picture and persona on their front pages as he achieves his greatest triumph and conquers Damascus more than a day before the British regulars arrive.  But the Arab Council is a failure.  As it becomes clear the British will take control, Lawrence visits a hospital full of Turkish prisoners.  It is terribly run, without doctors or running water.  Lawrence meets the dying men and collapses in laughter as he is forced to face the horrors his fantasy has unleashed – without anything concrete to show for it except the headlines that Prince Faisal refers to as “illusions.”

Lawrence the man is left with nothing but an illusion.  On the shores of Aqaba, he admits to Ali he doesn’t know if he is a prince or a man, or what he is.  On the bank of the Nile, he is left speechless as the question “Who are you?”


Lawrence’s invented self has left him without a true self.  No one who knows him can even find anything genuine to say about him at his funeral.  Director David Lean brings us the romantic notion of Lawrence, but shows us the emptiness of that same romance.

The film’s intermission begins immediately after a short exchange between Lawrence’s superior, General Allenby, and the diplomat, Mr. Dryden.

ALLENBY: I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.

DRYDEN: Let’s hope we’re not.

who are you

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12 Years a Slave – Breaking the silence on slavery

12 Years a Slave (2013) dir. Steve McQueen.

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVEHollywood has released more movies about slavery in ancient Rome than slavery in America.  And the rare popular films that do directly discuss the issue, such as Amistad and Lincoln, are more concerned with the political battles fought by the white leading characters than they are the black experience of slavery.

At a wide glance, this seems very odd.  Slavery was the dominant political and cultural issue on the continent for at least a century.  Hollywood producers have never shied away from showing violence or cruelty, and political activism has always been a terrific way to win awards.  Roots was immensely popular with television viewers, proving there’s an audience for the subject.

confederate cemetery fayetteville arkansasBut to those of us living in the former Confederacy, cinema’s silence doesn’t seem unusual.  Even in the liberal corners of the south, there’s a tremendous unwillingness to acknowledge of slavery.  We’re practically tripping over Confederate monuments and Civil War battlefields, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much as a plaque to commemorate the former slaves who helped build this area.  Earlier this year I attended a lecture on the 150th anniversary of a local battle.  We heard about the history and geography of the city in great detail, and were read a lengthy list of the dead on both sides of the conflict.

But the “s word” was not spoken.

Very early in its history, Hollywood adopted a neo-Confederate view of slavery — that slaveholders were basically good people living in a different time who shouldn’t be judged harshly.  Slavers usually treated their property well, and whether slave or servant, African Americans are better off serving white people anyway.


Fictional character Scarlett O’Hara was always very kind and friendly to slaves.

We see this attitude in all of the highest-grossing films that touch on the subject; Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Song of the South.

That’s the importance of 12 Years a Slave.  For millions of Americans, the movie clips played at the Academy Awards in March will be the first time they are exposed to the historical reality of slavery.

That’s also where 12 Years a Slave gets its power.  It, and last year’s Django Unchained, are the first mainstream movies to portray plantation owners are villains and to show slavery from a slave’s point of view.

But the violence in 12 Years a Slave is not Tarantino’s violence.  It’s been compared to Schindler’s List in that it emphasizes the dehumanizing, unnecessary nature of the sadism inflicted upon the victims.  It presents us with a picture of an evil that cannot be justified, and stands as a record of the unique horrors of plantation slavery.

It’s odd to praise a film for taking the stand that “slavery was evil.”  But even 150 years later, that’s a rare thing to hear.

12 Years a Slave

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All That Heaven Allows

All That Heaven Allows (1955) dir. Douglas Sirk

all-that-heaven-deerWill a woman let society decide who she is and how she should live?  Or will she instead let the man she loves make those decisions for her?  Such is the sad “choice” facing Jane Wyman’s character in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film All That Heaven Allows.

Ordinarily, most of us would give a film of this age a bit of a pass for not measuring up to feminist scholarship.  We could even give Heaven a favorable comparison to most Hollywood melodramas released in 2013.  But there’s a long-running campaign to re-interpret Sirk as a progressive champion, when he was no such thing.

All That Heaven Allows - Jane Wyman Rock HudsonJane Wyman plays New England widow Cary Scott, who falls in love with her Thoreau-reading gardener, Ron Kirby, played by Rock Hudson.  Scott’s children and friends all want her to settle down with a nice, older gentleman.  She wants to run off with Rock Hudson.

Obviously, our Hollywood audience is rooting for Rock.  The story of a woman choosing a dashing young man over the wishes of her family and of high society is a classic.

And Sirk tells the story beautifully.  His use of color is absolutely stunning — and the things he can get away with without alienating the audience is unparalleled.

All That Heaven Allows - color room

Take a look at this still from a scene where Scott tries to comfort her crying daughter.  She is sobbing because of the way she was teased over her mother’s love affair with the gardener.  Sirk shows us the strange window that creates these colors — and then bathes the characters in them, leaving Jane Wyman’s face in white light to keep our focus there.  The tumbling, emotive, heart-wrenching color fits the emotional pitch of the scene so well, we don’t notice its artifice.

All That Heaven Allows - televisionAnd this scene is even more daring.  Scott has already said she doesn’t want a television set, because it would mean she is giving up on life.  And yet, this is the Christmas present her son gives her.  She is drained of color as she stares into the screen and the salesman promises “drama, comedy, life’s parade, at your fingertips.”

OK, maybe Sirk doesn't play it *entirely* straight.

OK, maybe Heaven doesn’t play it *entirely* straight.

The screen-within-a-screen and the character-as-audience is a classic Brechtian device.  Sirk famously directed a production of one of Bertolt Brecht play while in Germany, something the Sirk-as-ironist crowd seizes upon to make their point.  But Sirk is pure melodrama, in this scene and in all others.  He plays it straight.

“You have to think with the heart,” Sirk said in an interview where he dismissed some of the interpretations surrounding his work.  He may have complained about the restrictions given to him by profit-motivated studio execs, but Sirk very much wanted to leave an audience crying, and he very much meant what he wrote.

That’s why it was hard for me to see Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows as ironic or subversive.  Certainly, there are no subversive themes in All That Heaven Allows.  Unlike Todd Haynes’s 2002 tribute, Far From Heaven, Sirk’s film is notably apolitical.

Walden All That Heaven AllowsRock Hudson’s character, Ron Kirby, offers Cary Scott quite a change from New England society, and he’s clearly a good guy.  But a feminist interpretation sees him as no less inflexible, judgmental or uncompromising than the town gossips.  He lives his life by the maxims contained in Thoreau’s Walden — a favorite of 19-year-olds everywhere before Kerouac came around.  Kirby does not associate with people who also do not admire Thoreau.

Kirby doesn’t want to meet Scott’s circle of friends, will not even consider moving into her home, has an arrogant attitude towards her culture and lifestyle, dismisses Scott’s legitimate fears about losing her life-long friends, and shows little interest in her daily life.  He has their life planned out for them, and breaks the engagement when she suggests they wait until the children have gotten a chance to know him better.

All-That-Heaven-Allows Jane WymanIt become clear Kirby wants to free Scott from “society” so he can remake her as one of his people — his friends, his house, his books, his expectations.  It’s fine for a woman to march differently, as long as it’s to her husband’s drum.

I’m not trying to assault All That Heaven Allows.  I think it’s a beautiful film with a terrific love story.  But I don’t think it’s fair to interpret it, or Sirk, as unusually progressive for 1955.

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Docks of New York

Docks of New York (1928) dir. Josef von Sterberg

The Docks of New York

Mae is despondent after spending life as a prostitute, and decides to drown herself.  The burly steamship stoker Bill saves her life instead.  They go out drinking (the film is set in the past, when pubs were legal) and get married by a minister.

The Docks of New York

The director shines lights on their faces to tell us they are in love.  This marriage is more than just “a good time” – even if neither character is ready to fully trust in that yet.

The Docks of New York

But, the sea calls, and Bill must leave his bride behind.  Can love shine through the fog and the squalor of poverty on the docks?

The plot is paper-thin, but the story is timeless — and the light is one of the best examples of Hollywood romance there ever was.

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When the world ends

Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars von Trier

Kirsten Dunst - Melancholia“..depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while “ordinary, happy” people are more apt to panic. Melancholics are ready for it. They already know everything is going to hell.”

Or so Lars von Trier’s therapist told him, according to the Danish Film Institute, inspiring his end-of-the-world film Melancholia – in which the depressed, neurotic bride is the only character who acts appropriately in the face of the apocalypse.

I remember an argument I once had with my therapist in college.  She was trying to convince me that my negative thoughts weren’t “useful.”  I fought back, trying to explain that – useful or not – my negative thoughts were true.  The world really was going to end, nothing we did mattered, and a certain understanding of reformed theology clearly demonstrated that my trouble getting dates was concrete proof of God’s contempt for humanity.

I hope I was at least an entertaining client.

I turn to Lars von Trier when I turn to Eminem or to Rage or to any of my Gen Y heroes who remember what it was like in the pre-9/11 America, when only we moody teenagers understood how terrible the world really was.

The perfect alternative rock album cover.

The perfect alternative rock album cover.

The film starts with a scene showing a large planet colliding with Earth, destroying it completely.  The suspense is dispensed with, we move to the trivial matter of how organic life spent its final days.

Wagner's prelude to 'Tristan and Isolde' serves as the film score.

Wagner’s prelude to ‘Tristan and Isolde’ serves as the film score.

Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a gorgeous American bride marrying a handsome man she seems to love in a giant castle.  She blushes at compliments and praise, she smiles and laughs.

She tells people this wedding is what she wants in order to please them – and then she runs off by herself to cry.  She urinates on the golf course, she takes a bath instead of cutting the cake with her groom, and she leaves the marital bed early to have sex with a new co-worker.

"I smile, and I smile, and I smile," says the unhappy bride of our story.

“I smile, and I smile, and I smile,” says the unhappy bride of our story.

She seems to genuinely hate the way she behaves.  She’s acting out of depression and of the titular “melancholia.” (“a mental condition and especially a manic-depressive condition characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints, and often hallucinations and delusions” – per Merriam-Webster)

Justine’s sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is the Martha to her Mary.  She has organized this large party, and struggles to keep everyone on-task while Justine acts on impulse.  Justine’s mother hates the wedding, but unlike Justine, she doesn’t try to hide behind a smile.  We feel sorry for Justine, but we hate her mother.  Her anger at the world is neither clever or beautiful — just mean.

(There’s not much to say about the men in Melancholia.  They are distracted, impotent and unimportant.)

The marriage falls apart quickly, and the guests are sent home.  Claire tries her best to care for her sister, although Justine cannot bathe herself and cannot eat a meal without sobbing.

The planet – which we learn is named Melancholia – approaches Earth, and we prepare for the inevitable collision.  Some characters try and deny the end, hoping it will pass us by.  Claire’s husband promises her that the “real scientists” say Melancholia is leaving.  He pretends there is nothing to worry about for as long as he can.

EcclesiastesAs it becomes more clear that The End Really Is Near, Justine grows stronger, and Claire weaker.  Justine’s pain and depression becomes justified — while Claire’s hard work and optimism appears to be, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us, “vanity and a chasing after wind.”

New York Times critic A.O. Scott compares Melancholia to the parable of the Ant and the Grasshopper — but with the opposite moral of the fable.

Justine faces death head-on, but she’s no brave stoic heroine, or over-woman, like you might have expected from von Trier’s German romanticism and heavy use of Wagner.  Instead, Justine become more like her mother, and less sympathetic as a character.  Justine lashes out in anger at her sister, and at the world that is crumbling.

"All I know is, life on Earth is evil," says Justine when her sister asks for comfort and reconciliation. "And when I say we're alone, we're alone.  Life is only on Earth, and not for long."

“All I know is, life on Earth is evil,” says Justine when her sister asks for comfort and reconciliation. “And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on Earth, and not for long.”

The idea that pain and anguish are appropriate responses to the world is an idea that runs through all of von Trier’s work.  His apocalypses in Dogville and Manderlay are perhaps more biting than Melancholia‘s.  In those films, the Myshkin-like liberal who attempts to eradicate evil finds that kindness unleashes even more depravity than she realized could even exist.  Von Trier’s films go so far as to endorse Satanism, fascism and slavery in order to remind us of the wickedness embedded in even our most seemingly moral citizens.

Nicole Kidman as a failed Christ figure in Dogville.

Nicole Kidman as a failed Christ figure in Dogville.

All the religious writers worth reading do the same.  And many religious filmmakers have tried to copy them.  Currently, Terrence Malick is the only director who can consistently make suffering as sublime as von Trier can.  But Malick undercuts the pain with too much happiness.  Von Trier stays focused.

His flood has no Noah, his crucifixion has no resurrection, and his Judgment Day has no Lamb.

And, I think this is for the best.  A collection of scripture or a church calendar or a work by Dostoevsky has the length and depth to explore both sin and redemption.  I’m not sure a 2 or 3-hour film can do that.  If we’re offered salvation only hours after having our soul crushed, we haven’t been allowed to experience despair for a meaningful length of time.

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