by Rachel Kendall
Every time I watch a new von Trier film I think I know what to expect. And every time I am totally blown away with his infallible sense of the new in film-making. Yes there are recurring themes in his work, but he clothes each emotion in new finery every time.
I recently watched Melancholia. Then I watched it again straight after. I’ll be honest and say this film didn’t really appeal to me, though I have seen most of his previous films and his early (and funny/surreal as Hell) series Riget, and loved them. Dogville didn’t really get to me in the same way. It may be that I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to ‘get’ this totally experimental shot at film-making. Or it may have more to do with the fact that Nicole Kidman was in it.
Melancholia was released in the midst of a public storm surrounding von Trier, regarding a Nazi-related comment he made, and because of this I think the film was boycotted by much of his usual audience. Von Trier is no stranger to controversy though. When The Idiots came out in in 1998 it was received with horror by some, and according to one reviewer it was just ‘merde’. There was much debate about the way disability was portrayed, and also about the explicit sexual scenes in the film. But people were missing the point. The film is about a group of people who feign developmental disability while out in public, in order to posit an unspoken and largely unanswered question about disability. But in private it’s also an opportunity to gain control over one’s previously suppressed emotions.
And then, of course, there’s the upcoming film Nymphomania, where, as the title suggests, von Trier once again does not shy away from explicity sexual material. Again he has been called into question over the (un)necessary and overtly sexual scenes.
The first von Trier film I watched was Dancer in the Dark. When I say I watched it, I mean I got half-way through and then decided I couldn’t take it any more. It was just too sad. I’ve seen sadder, grimmer, grittier films since, so perhaps one day I’ll give it another go. Antichrist, for instance, is a devastatingly difficult film to watch, but Gainsbourg’s portrayal of a woman flattened by grief is utterly compelling.
When I read about Melancholia I thought – here we go, another depressing film. But I should have known better. None of this director’s films are JUST about depression or anti-establishmentarianism. There is something much larger, allegorical. His actors don’t simply show the characteristics of depression; there are other dangerous/natural forces at work. In Antichrist, Gainsbourg’s guilt and grief are like a gateway opened up to the demons hiding in nature’s baser places. It’s the thesis on witchcraft she takes up again; it’s the struggle against something much more powerful and dangerous than her ie. her grief.
In Melancholia the face of depression is revealed to be the planet Melancholia on a collision course with Earth. It’s the crashes of orchestral music and the breath-taking, slow-motion images that makes this a very beautiful film. Kirsten Dunst plays her part well, fighting depression whilst trying, so very hard and even on her wedding day, to pretend everything is okay, whilst Melancholia looms, coming closer, threatening to wipe the world out. And like anyone who has suffered from depression for a long time, this is how it feels. You can see it on the horizon, you know when it is coming, and you have to brave yourself for the moment of impact.
Lars von Trier directs beautiful films. But they can be difficult because of their subject matter. Why would you want to watch a film about a woman who’s lost a child, or a woman who is constantly battling depression (his main characters are usually women. There’s a feminine/planetary/natural link running through these films, as though the female, in her ancient lunar/fluid form, is his muse)? Because he shows us the worst at its most beautiful, its most dangerous and its most believable. By creating another world and another consciousness, he delivers a reality stripped of artifice and loaded with personal understanding.