A lot of people point to Antichrist as supposedly irrefutable evidence of von Trier’s misogyny; I wish I could just go with the flow there and agree with most people, but the thing is, I can’t. In terms of Feelings, I find almost too much meaning in this film, and sort of identify with this woman who outright feels so much, and displays those feelings—no matter how ugly, weird and dangerous—in increasingly intense ways.
Yes, yes, yes, I love this so much. I actually got into arguments with folks around the time Antichrist came out because so many people insisted that von Trier simply must be a misogynist (much of this was drummed up by entertainment media, who always do everything in their power to portray von Trier as a Danish gremlin). Von Trier might be a misanthrope, but I can’t think of another male filmmaker that tries harder to express the overwhelming complications of humanity through the lens of femininity more than him, and Antichrist is a prime example that speaks to why (more so than the slightly stilted Melancholia, in my opinion, although the first half of that movie brilliantly chronicles another feminine nightmare).
In his negative review of Antichrist for The New York Times, AO Scott writes, “Mr. (Lars) von Trier has said that making the movie helped him overcome a crippling depression. I’m glad he feels better.” Watching von Trier’s new film Melancholia, you get the feeling that he might receive statements like that (“glad/hope you feel better”) a lot, and not only in regards to the frequently depressing additions to his filmography. For all the talk and controversy about whether Antichrist was a misogynistic question of if, as Scott put it, “woman are inherently evil or just tragically misunderstood,” the bigger more important question seemed to apply not to women or femininity but to von Trier himself; is he evil or just misunderstood? In all of his most personal movies, the director has always cast his onscreen doppelganger as a woman, and while that can be read with tremendous criticism as an insecure distancing effect, it’s important to draw the connections between von Trier, his protagonists and ultimately what his movies are saying about him personally. The best of his “golden heart” trilogy (Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) both feature women martyrs who continue to see the positive in all aspects of life, despite how the world and society continues to use and mistreat them maliciously. This is von Trier at his most idealized, finding a way to look beyond the evil and corruption he sees in human beings and the dysfunctional world they’ve created every day. If critics complain that his excuse for idealizing these woman exists solely so that he, just like the society he condemns, can continue to mistreat and abuse them for his own pleasure and satisfaction fail to understand that this is the reality as von Trier sees it. If he’s brutal to these characters it’s because he feels it’s necessary in making them all the more noble for staying true to their ideal nature despite the cynical world they inhabit. In short, I don’t think these movies are meant to be seen as cruel jokes (as some have argued), not even the beautiful, celestial bells that close Breaking the Waves. These two films (possibly his finest) are love letters to optimistic people, a breed I’m guessing he wishes he could become considering he addresses himself even more realistically in his next (still unfinished) USA trilogy. Here, the von Trier surrogates are two different actresses playing the same character. In both Dogville and Manderlay, Grace originally sets out to do good, only scumming to evil when all her best intentions fail her. It’s tempting to read both of these films as nothing short of political allegory, and I’d be lying if I argued that they’re not. But they’re also a more honest representation of their creator, for Grace is simply von Trier’s fantasy of himself as a naive martyr with a “golden heart” corrupted by evil, cold and vindictive. The shocking violence that ends Dogville stems directly from von Trier’s frustration in the punishing, corruptible systems that we trust in, abide in and maintain despite its cause in our inevitable destruction. In short; he’s taking aim at the society that would punish his previous characters while also demonstrating that he is no better. While he wants to be someone with good intentions who sees the good in people and the world, he knows better, and with that knowledge comes the price of anger, resentment, bitterness and even the possibility of destrutive violence.
That leads to Antichrist, and after that, Melancholia (bear with me here, I know this is a long one). Given that they feature a similar structure (including vividly shot pre-title sequences and nearly identical title cards), I wouldn’t be surprised if these two films are part of a new trilogy (or duo, considering that the last third of the USA trilogy, Washington, will probably never be made). What surprised me the most about the reaction to Antichrist was how many people assumed the director was using Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character “She” as some kind of misogynistic attack against woman. It’s obvious to anyone who knows von Trier and his work that “She” is quote obviously once again another stand-in for the director, albeit an even more frightening one than Grace. Considering that Antichrist and Melancholia both were made in the aftermath of von Trier beginning therapy to deal with his depression, it’s logical to assume that the first film of the two was his (negative) reaction to therapy, which explains Willem Dafoe’s insistence of treating “She” with psychoanalysis, arrogantly insisting that he can “fix” his disturbed wife, despite their intimacy, despite the painful experience they’ve both gone through, despite that “She” is obviously quite disturbed and beyond his help. Antichrist is a movie that portrays von Trier’s worst fears about himself; suggesting his depression and neurosis are incurable (or worse, inexplicable), that “nature” is something we pretend to understand, but can not. The only certainty about human nature is our own pompous belief of self-worth that separates us from other animals, and so as “She” descends into uncontrollable, almost animalistic violence in response to “He’s” stubborn insistence on “fixing” her, we’re reminded of the violence that overcomes Grace after she attempts to “fix” the town of Dogville, the same “fixes” that ultimately defeated the “golden heart” protagonists. Von Trier’s biggest fear is that there is no fixing, no controlling, only chaos, only “nothingness” at the center of everything. The only way to live a happy life is to enjoy a naive existence, like his “golden heart” doppelgangers. Despite the suffering they endure, I’m guessing von Trier would rather live like these woman than any of his other characters combined. He’s a man damned by the forbidden fruit. The more he knows, the less he wants to know.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the lead character in Melancholia, might be von Trier’s most personal surrogate. Like the director, Justine suffers from crippling depression, and we get a glimpse of it during what should be the happiest day of her life. As someone who was recently married, I appreciated the black humor von Trier exploits through the nightmare of the wedding reception that makes up the first half of Melancholia. First, Justine and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) get stuck in their limo ride up to the ritzy estate being thrown by Justine’s sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and husband John (Keifer Sutherland). Then, they’re toasted in a trio of embarrassing speeches, including one from Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) that dismisses the very idea of marriage as downright idiotic. Meanwhile, her father (John Hurt) steals dinner spoons, gets drunk and flirts with every woman available, calling all of them Betty. Justine gets so depressed that she flees her own wedding to take a bath, angering John, her sister, her guests, her wedding planner (a hysterical Udo Kier) and her fiance, who all encourage her to just “be happy.” She can’t, however, and as the details of the failed wedding begin to pile up, Justine’s crippling depression becomes something of a comfort. At the end of the night, when her guests eagerly clap for her to throw the bouquet, Claire has to step in and do it for her, in a hysterical bit of pantomime. To top it all off, before daybreak hits, Justine has slept with a fellow employee and her husband has left her, the future of their bond forever questionable.
There’s no question, however, that this is something of a satirical nightmare, and if we grow frustrated with Justine in her depression (as many of the characters do), von Trier is far too glibly there to remind us why we’re wrong. In the second half, told mostly from Claire’s point of view, a giant planet called Melancholia is due to collide into Earth, or barely “fly-by” the atmosphere and just miss impact. Claire is rattled by the news, and as collision looks more and more likely, she herself loses control and sinks into depressing, causing her and Justine to switch roles, something like the two planets pulling their gravity towards each other. Finding very little worthwhile in the world, Justine is perfectly calm in the wake of the coming apocalypse, so she indulges Claire and her son in an end of the world bit of naivete; a magic cave made of sticks they sit under until the impact of Melancholia kills them (and the rest of us) off. With the second half, von Trier is trying to illuminate just how tragic this depression can feel to him, and he’s also asking himself why life is worth living when the end result will ultimately be our own individual apocalypses. We believe in our own “magic caves” every day, and the von Trier that has emerged post-therapy is one that questions these caves, questions his very role as a filmmaker, someone who constructions and distorts a very pessimistic reality. The result, unfortunately, is the exact opposite of his earlier, superior work. If the bells that close the end of Breaking the Waves are something of a “magic cave” intended to reward the audience with a belief in the afterlife, a belief of something more or greater than their corrupt society, why is it an image of a complete fallacy seems to hold more truth and power than anything within Melancholia? These are interesting questions here and the movie has an intriguing structure, but the problem with Melancholia is that neither tragedy, the wedding nightmare or the apocalyptic nightmare have any distinct personality to them because the characters are surprisingly flat and thin. Think about the list of wedding cliches Justine experiences; if she was more of a well rounded character and if we got to know better, the elements of her nightmare might read less like a laundry list of cliches. Similarly, the second half features Claire descending to a level of panic, but the steps of her descent feel too quick and sudden. She’s as well-rounded as a chess piece, being moved into specific actions simply because it’s time for her to do so. It’s obvious that her fears of the end of the world would trigger specific nervous reactions, but it’s odd to see her both exploring the possibility of disaster (researching Melancholia’s collision on the internet, purchasing pills to peacefully kill herself) while continuing to engage in “magic caves” of her own (covering up her deceased husband with hay, pretending as if she didn’t even find him, insisting on calming herself with wine on the patio in the wake of the end of the world). Here, like in the first half, von Trier’s characters behave in vague bush strokes; these might be the actions of people in the wake of two very different end-of-the-world seeming nightmares, but neither of these people feel like people, like sisters. The fault is not in the acting; despite being an odd couple as relatives, Dunst and Gainsbourg are terrific (especially and surprisingly Dunst, who adapts a positively unnerving flat affect in the second half). These actresses can only bring so much to this role, so the fault has to be laid on the feet of their creator. Like Antichrist, it’s no doubt that Melancholia is a personal film exploring von Trier’s deepest fears about his place with the rest of humanity and society. It’s just too bad he neglected to include enough humanity to make the whole thing come alive. The result is a gorgeous looking movie, as luminous as the celestial planets that frequently occupy its frames, but one without any sense of gravity.