“My films are about ideals that clash with the world. Every time it’s a man in the lead, they have forgotten about the ideals. And every time it’s a woman in the lead, they take the ideals all the way.” — Lars von Trier

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. 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 the truth, that madness is sometimes preferable to sanity. That welcoming it is the only option.

The other psychological insight of the film, and the one that really matters, is: Those of us who have been drenched in psychological catastrophe since childhood, know how to accept – and endure – reality. You will just have to trust the word of the insane on this one. When things fall apart, come find the sufferers, come find the people you’ve been irritated by and have been telling to “cheer up” for 20 years. We won’t be freaked out at all when shit goes down. 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 (sadly, The Dissolve – a fantastic cultural site – has vanished from the internet). Here’s what I wrote about Melancholia:

In 1621, scholar Robert Burton published The Anatomy Of Melancholy, a mammoth study of the malady, in which he wrote: “And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself… more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality.” Such a grand topic requires a grand film, and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is an audacious masterpiece, operatic in scope and tone (and soundtrack: The film starts with a surreal prologue underscored by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.) Early on in Melancholia, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), in her fluffy wedding dress, stops and stares up into the night sky. She asks her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), “What star is that?” It’s actually a planet on a collision course with Earth. Justine’s depression prepares her for mortality better than the stable Claire, who falls apart. In one of the most gorgeous scenes in the film, Justine goes out at night and lies naked in the grass, luxuriating in the bright glow of the oncoming planet. There has rarely been a better depiction of the siren call of melancholy. And so despite its grim fatalism, Melancholia puts into images an experience so difficult to describe that even great writers falter. “There it is,” the film says. “That’s what it’s like.”

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!

Then I reviewed his truly wacky and truly audacious (words fail) two-part erotic-intellectual manifesto, Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

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.
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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9 Responses to “My films are about ideals that clash with the world. Every time it’s a man in the lead, they have forgotten about the ideals. And every time it’s a woman in the lead, they take the ideals all the way.” — Lars von Trier

  1. Kristen Westergaard says:

    I love this SO much. You’ve given me so much to reflect on that will stay with me. To be honest, I am a bit afraid to actually watch the films- pretty sure I don’t have the nervous system for House that Jack Built- but I am kind of aching to see Melancholia now.
    I love how you are rarely in thrall to the given wisdom. For example, misogyny may be found in art, but often not in the places that people have smugly agreed it is. Life, and people, have such complex layers.
    Your essay reminds me of the thrill of discovering Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind- she is simultaneously destructive, and vital in a way I’d never seen before and it was both frightening and oddly inspiring. I think Sirk is another who gets women in a profound way and never “talks down” to them.

    • sheila says:

      Kristen! sorry for the delay. so glad to hear your thoughts on this – it’s a very serious subject and tbh many people don’t really want to have it. everything is very black and white – and … I admit I can fall into that thinking too. I actually love it when I change my mind, though, based on more evidence or just a moment of “a-ha” like Melancholia was.

      // but often not in the places that people have smugly agreed it is. //

      absolutely. and I am very disheartened when I see it coming from the so-called progressive side. There is still a lot of victim-blaming going on AND there’s a suspicion about sexual activity – like, not every pursuit is “rapey” – to assume so means you’re basically discounting the fact that women want sex too, or have desires, or may even be attracted to danger/risk (this is the realm of LVT’s Nymphomaniac films). that woman is OUT THERE in her behavior but it’s all her choice. No one is twisting her arm or coercing her.

      these things often come up when discussing LVT’s films – and honestly I think it’s fine to grapple with all this. He’s not to everyone’s taste.

      If you had to start with LVT, I would suggest Melancholia. It’s an interesting mix of handheld realism and phantasmagorical surreal sci-fi – and underneath it is a treatise on mental illness – or, not a treatise – just a presentation of what it feels like from the inside. Superb acting. Unnerving, yes, but beautiful.

      House that Jack Built is crazy – but honestly no less crazy than all the true crime murder podcasts overtaking generations (of mostly women – lol – I count myself). so many of us spend a lot of time listening to 8-part podcasts describing the most horrific crimes. House that Jack Built is like that. and honestly it’s one of his more silly films. at least I thought so. definitely violent though.

      and Dorothy Malone!! // I think Sirk is another who gets women in a profound way and never “talks down” to them. // totally agree. His women are quite complex and he has compassion, even when they’re really “out there” – like Malone is in Written on the Wind. I wrote a piece about her for Film Comment and I said something along the lines of – in that whole film, her character is the only one who actually recognizes the INSANITY of her surroundings and responds appropriately. everybody else is just pretending all of this is normal. She goes crazy because her world is crazy. Such a bold performance. I love her! and to end her career with Basic Instinct – as another murderess, albeit retired – is just perfect.

      Thanks so much for your comment! lots to think about.

  2. Lyrie says:

    Oh man, that conversation back in 2018… seems like ages ago, and like yesterday at the same time.

    It’s funny, I hadn’t re-watched it since, and I did just a few months ago – maybe two or three months? – clearly, I don’t have the best sense of time. I thought about it a lot during the beginning of the pandemic, but I really needed to re-watch as most people decided to “go back to normal” in a way that felt very alienating for those of us for whom staying cautious was (is) literally a matter of life or death.

    It felt the same (when a movie left a strong impression I’m always worried it won’t work on me the same way another time), I remembered it pretty well, and it also felt… different. It can stretch.

    I still haven’t watched anything else from him, though, ha! I’ll get to it eventually, probably.

    • sheila says:

      Lyrie – hi! yes, I loved our spontaneous Melancholia thread – with all my SPN friends discovering it and needing to talk. It really is that kind of movie.

      // I really needed to re-watch as most people decided to “go back to normal” in a way that felt very alienating for those of us for whom staying cautious was (is) literally a matter of life or death. //

      Interesting. I really relate to this. I went out to dinner this week with a friend – and had a moment realizing I am still not used to this – just going out to a public place with a friend – I have missed it (and I’m half-hermit half-social – I need both). It’s still an adjustment.

      // and it also felt… different. It can stretch. //

      Interesting – what else did you perceive in it?

      This little thread made me want to watch it again.

      • Lyrie says:

        // I went out to dinner this week with a friend – and had a moment realizing I am still not used to this – just going out to a public place with a friend//

        I still can’t do that, unless it’s outside, in a place that’s not crowded, with someone I trust will cancel if they suddenly have a strange cold or “allergies,”… It really limits my options – and my social circle, which was never large to begin with. I wasn’t able to see the new John Wick in theatre, I don’t know when I’ll be able to see a play or live music indoors again. What a disconnect with some of my friends, who have been going to parties and brunch and conferences for a year.It’s not that “I am too afraid.” so many people prefer to believe it’s about how I feel and not about very real risks, which I assess taking into account my own health, and also the data, and current scientific research – including other people’s behaviour. But because the information is getting harder to find, and people – understandably – want to forget all the risks, the fear, the deaths, the grief… 

        // and it also felt… different. It can stretch. //
        So what I mean is that I didn’t have a radically new, different experience watching it this time. I recognized depression, the isolation, and people’s impatience with it all. And the strength there is in being so fucked up anyway that when things go down, you’re so prepared – you’ve been there all along! Welcome to my world, motherfuckers! See who is losing it now!But now it also takes on a new-ish meaning: it’s kind of same old, but the SCALE of it is different. It’s the same but the pandemic has changed things. And to understand things, not exactly with a different lens – with added meaning. Like a kaleidoscope. Because this time I don’t recognize just myself in Justine, but also a community, my disabled siblings. And so it’s the same but I feel more allowed to be angry on Justine’s behalf, to judge her a little and to also accept her as she is. I also see more reflected in the parents’ reactions – or everybody around her. This time, it feels a little less personal, and also much more personal. 

        • sheila says:

          I know just what you mean. For me, that’s one of the markers of a great piece of art: if it changes as you change. If it adapts itself through repeat viewings – as you change. You see new things in it. So much art is not able to do that – it works for you (the general you) at a certain moment in time, and it can’t really travel.

          Melancholia travels.

  3. Lyrie says:

    “It travels” – yes!
    And sometimes I’m scared to revisit something that spoke to me at a time in my life and discover it hasn’t followed me.

    Or in this case, I didn’t expect to be let down, but I dind’t expect the experience to have taken so much new meaning.

  4. White Woman sounds a bit like The Naked Jungle. Ever see it? In high school we all read “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” on which the movie is based. One of those films that’s enjoyable without being good. I remember a bit of dialogue between Charlton H. and Eleanor Parker, who plays a mail order bride. He’s annoyed to find out she was married before and makes his point by bragging about a grand piano he had shipped downstream to his plantation and how important it was that it had never been played before. She says Yes, and it’s out of tune. Anyway, as always, great list!

    • sheila says:

      I haven’t seen it – I love Eleanor Parker though! Laughton did so many great roles. white woman is terrible but he’s so entertaining and bold. Like Big Daddy but evil!

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