It’s his birthday today. So … happy (?) birthday to this provocative sometimes-maddening always-fascinating auteur.
Question mark due to the doubt that “happy” has anything to do with the Danish film director, who has been poking the bear from the jump, outraging people (sometimes including myself), and then saying shit that puts him “way beyond the pale” – like his notorious press conference at Cannes which got him banned. If you watch that press conference, he’s got this little smirk on his face as he’s saying the shit about Nazis. I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. He wasn’t “accidentally” making those comments as a “slip”. He knew they were provocative. It’s why he said them.
He first came to my attention with Breaking the Waves, which every single person in my circle of friends FLIPPED over and I …. really REALLY hated. I don’t normally hate things, so even I was surprised by my reaction. I think the public fawning over it (as I saw it anyway) was partially why I rebelled against it so strongly. And so I was done with Lars von Trier. I proceeded to ignore him for a decade. He came out with films. Everyone talked about them. I ignored it all. (By the way: if your opinions have never changed over the years … you scare me.) I wasn’t working as a film critic back then so I felt no obligation to “keep up” with anything that irritated me so MIGHTILY as the guy who directed Breaking the Waves. There were plenty of other directors I loved and admired. He just wasn’t one of them.
Then … I saw Melancholia at the New York Film Festival (by that point I was working as a film critic), and …
I was flattened. I had never “seen myself” before onscreen – not really, not as specifically. Melancholia spoke to me in a way few films have … and it’s strange, but I didn’t get my proper psychiatric diagnosis until two years later, but I was already struggling – MIGHTILY – by 2011 (and had struggled since I was a kid). It was no longer even a crisis (in my mind anyway): this was just how I lived, how I saw the world, and I couldn’t make anyone understand. I couldn’t describe what it felt like. John Keats’ poem on melancholy helped. That Sylvia Plath poem where she describes what her son must see when he looks up at her from his crib: a “ceiling without a star”. That comes close to it. Emily Dickinson’s “slant of light”. These are all things which help to explain the experience – the experience which is beyond words.
Then came Melancholia. Not only is the story of a rogue planet on a crash collision course with Earth a perfect metaphor for what the approach of madness actually feels like – this is the thing sane people just can’t “get” because they are sane! – but on a more earth-bound level (heh), it’s almost a clarion call of respect for those who suffer – respect, not pity – because those who suffer are better able to face reality, the “melancholic” are WAY better equipped to face catastrophe than sane people. I mean, there’s not even a contest. Tennessee Williams’ plays are all about this: the “sensitivies”, the “fragiles”, the “broken” … they’re the strong ones. They’re the ones unafraid to face the truth of the matter. The healthy ones cringe and close their eyes.
Here’s what LVT had to say about “melancholy”:
“True values entail suffering. That’s the way we think. All in all, we tend to view melancholia as more true. We prefer music and art to contain a touch of melancholia. So melancholia in itself is a value. Unhappy and unrequited love is more romantic than happy love. For we don’t think that’s completely real, do we?…Longing is true. It may be that there’s no truth at all to long for, but the longing itself is true. Just like pain is true. We feel it inside. It’s part of our reality.”
Sane people believe the world is logical. And they call US delusional. And so logical people refuse to accept harsh reality, they push it away, saying “No No, this can’t be true.” Just like Charlotte Gainsbourg, the “stable” sister does in Melancholia. So responsible, so capable, she falls apart when the end of the world arrives. While Kirsten Dunst’s character, debilitated by depression, stares unblinkingly at the catastrophe and even – in one stunning scene – welcomes it, seduces it.
Melancholia is worth it for the insights provided in that scene alone. I don’t know if anybody is ready to listen. It’s a dangerous truth, which is why it is so rarely spoken, and – incidentally – WHY I have almost never “felt seen” in films. Nobody wants to hear that truth, that madness is sometimes preferable to sanity. That welcoming it is the only option you have. LVT found SUCH a perfect metaphor for the whole experience, it blew me away.
But back to the other psychological insight of the film, the one that really matters: Those of us who have been drenched in psychological catastrophe since childhood, know how to accept – and also endure – reality. You will just have to trust the word of the insane on this one. When things fall apart, come find the sufferers. We won’t be freaked out at all. We will not be afraid. We’ve endured far worse in our own heads.
This is the element of Melancholia that REALLY got to me, and I suppose healthier people would think it’s a dangerous message. Like, don’t let anyone tell you there’s ANYTHING good about “melancholia”. It’s UNHEALTHY to admit that mania is sometimes fun. It’s DANGEROUS to think mood swings are sometimes productive. And etc. But Melancholia says: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, you healthy happy people have an easier time of it, but when the chips are down, when shit gets real … WE will be the ones who can face it. You will disintegrate. Your world view is WRONG. You have ALWAYS been wrong.
It’s not a particularly socially acceptable viewpoint, but … I fucking RELATE to it.
To say Melancholia changed my mind about Lars von Trier is a bit too simplistic. I still don’t care for Breaking the Waves. And there are aspects of his work I find extremely irritating. But I now understand he is a great artist. And like a lot of great artists, he is a complicated and not-always-great human being. (Who is always great, though? Please. Introduce me to that paragon because I’ve never met one.)
I have to come to things in my own way and in my own time.
I find consensus-driven thinking stifling. And always have. It’s why I quit Girl Scouts the day they had us make duffel bags and we were all supposed to be excited. I just felt my own difference too strongly and I couldn’t “fake” excitement. So I walked. I was 10. So consensus around people I’m “supposed” to like – or not like – just does not work on me.
I will make up my own mind. There are those who despise Lars von Trier. I get it. I was that person too.
I changed my mind. I went into Melancholia resistant – an important thing to remember, considering the strength of my response to it. I didn’t grudgingly concede anything to the film. I unabashedly loved it. And I continue to love it. Other people loathe it. I find it glorious, and funny and almost uplifting. Like, I get it. This is madness told from the inside.
I’ve written a couple of things about Melancholia, the first the review I wrote when it premiered at NYFF.
I also wrote about it in The Dissolve’s list of the 50 Best Films of the Decade So far. (It’s a great list, by the way.)
I also posted something about it on Twitter back in 2018, and it generated such a discussion over there – mostly from people who hadn’t seen it and then saw it because of my recommendation – that I opened up a thread over here to continue the discussion. It’s a great one!
The movie is everything at once: smart and silly, pretentious and simple, erotic and gross. After all of it, after watching both films … that last scene blew my hair back. I still think about it.
And I loved House That Jack Built, the movie deemed too controversial to even be seen, the movie people erupted in outrage over without even having seen it … and where it was considered socially unacceptable to even SEE it, let alone have any reaction to it other than pearl-clutching horror. Fuck that. I thought it was amazing. Dillon gives one of his best performances in years, I wanted Uma Thurman to get SOME kind of award for her one scene alone, and it was also quite funny, in such a weird deadpan way.
Back in the day, with Breaking the Waves, I was so irritated at Lars von Trier’s views of women. Yeah, well, I was younger then. I get it now.
A humorous exchange around the time Nymphomaniac came out: at a film critic party, a younger 20-something male, who had barely let me get a word in edgewise as he talked AT me about the horrors of misogyny (being a good ally, you understand) – told me how offended he was by Lars von Trier’s misogyny. This guy was so sure of himself, so sure that I – the poor woman afflicted by such a harsh society (these guys truly don’t realize how Victorian they are in sensibility) – would be so GRATEFUL that I had an ALLY in my fight against nasty mean old Lars von Trier – that he looked totally dumbfounded when I said, “Misogynistic? Really? I don’t think he’s a misogynist at all! Why do you say that?” (I didn’t go to acting school for nothing. I played dumb. Like I had never before heard that critique. Like I had never once felt the same way myself. Like, I was TRULY surprised to hear him say those words.) This poor guy literally had no idea what to do. I suppose he could write me off as “retro” or “unenlightened” because I’m older, but I hope it at LEAST made him feel a little less secure in his hyped-up look-at-me-be-a-great-ally attitude, and hopefully a little bit more hesitant the next time he feels like lecturing a woman about who is or is not a misogynist.
People always talk about how they “feel seen” by this or that story, and how important it is to “feel seen” by something happening onscreen. It’s important. And no one, male or female, has expressed the experience of mental illness and madness and depression – visually or otherwise – the way he did in Melancholia – in a way where I felt “seen.”
He still irritates me sometimes. He says some stupid thing and everyone gets mad and I roll my eyes, thinking, “Oh, come ON, Lars.”
But all of that is fine and really beside the point. I’m here for the art, after all. Lars von Trier has earned my undivided attention.
I’m going to end with a quote from the great Chantal Akerman. Very gratifying to hear what she has to say. She echoes my thoughts about Lars von Trier and women:
Lars von Trier is very, very, very clever about women. He gives the woman a space that I don’t know any filmmaker does. Because in Breaking The Waves, protagonist Emily Watson is the Christ. Which man is doing that? I don’t know any man giving that space to a woman. No one.
Take THAT you self-satisfied “feminist” manboy.
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