Tag Archives: lars von trier

Melancholia (2011)

9 Dec

Lars Von Trier is a provocateur in the grand tradition of European martinets; continuing the lineage of wilful creative tyrants who revelled in furthering their mythology, bridled against the restrictions imposed on them, posed awkward questions and relished the discord, disquiet and discomfort they created. While his comrades in the pseudo-movement that was Dogme ‘95 have floundered, Trier has managed to remain a vital, divisive figure. Love him or hate him, he’s an artist who continues to evolve. Winner of Best Film at this year’s European Film Awards, ‘Melancholia’ is disarmingly beautiful; displaying an elegance that Trier abandoned in favour of the studied harshness that characterized his Dogme films, and the Brechtian rigour of his as-yet-unfinished ‘America’ trilogy.

On the day of her wedding, ad copyrighter Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is in the throes of a full-scale manic episode, retreating to her room and struggling to maintain her thin veneer of composure. As Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), struggles to help her through this breakdown, Claire’s stentorian husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), is watching the skies in anticipation. A planet called Melancholia that had been previously been hidden behind the sun is due to pass by Earth; and though the scientific calculations confidently state that the planet will leave Earth unscathed on its journey, creeping doubts remains as Melancholia draws closer.

This existential disaster film features a bravura opening sequence: loaded with gloom and foreboding, it encompasses Resnais’ surrealism, Dreyer’s pictorialism and Kubrick’s epic scope to create a heady melding of celluloid depth and digital crispness. This effect, moving forward while cognizant of the past, is achieved with the help of Manuel Alberto Claro’s stunning cinematography, Jette Lehmann’s detailed production design and Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s stirring arrangements of Wagner. But Trier hasn’t totally jettisoned the stark neo-realism of old; he uses natural light and handheld cameras throughout to track events in the imposing mansion straight out of ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961).

For all his alleged misogyny, Trier treats his female characters with the utmost compassion; conversely, their male counterparts are callow, craven, pompous and overbearing. From Udo Kier as the comically highly-strung wedding planner, to Stellan Skarsgaard as Justine’s hard-nosed ad exec boss, to John Hurt as Justine’s raffish father, to Sutherland as the uptight social climber; they serve to embody the worst male traits, and their performances border on caricature when placed next to the complexity of Dunst and Gainsbourg’s contributions.

Like Hitchcock, Trier takes pleasure in putting the starlets of the day through the emotional ringer; working with Trier is an endurance test, a battle of wits that is a gateway to instant credibility if it works. Dunst is an actress in the process of transition; no longer able to portray the all-American girls with which she made her name, she must spread her wings or face an uncertain future. Dunst throws herself into the maelstrom of Justine’s mania, laying herself bare without recourse to overheated theatrics: in the context of Trier’s universe, performances work best when they are unadorned, and Dunst rises to the challenge with assurance and maturity. Charlotte Rampling, whose career trajectory provides the perfect model for Dunst, plays Justine’s iconoclastic mother with her usual poise, and Gainsbourg provides understated support to Dunst’s mercurial turn.

 The ‘doomsday writ small’ scenario is not a new one, but the majority of films that explore cataclysmic events from a single perspective or confined environment often feel like the story is subservient to the conceit. ‘Melancholia’, on the other hand, is a fully formed dramatic work, imbued with the Animistic spirit that first found its voice in ‘Antichrist’ (2009) and has much in common with Terrence Malick’s recent work, albeit laced with Trier’s usual sly humour and grandiose gestures. Trier deals with the subject unencumbered by mawkish sentiment, asserting that the prospect of impending doom won’t bring out the best in us, but serve to expose us for who we really are.

A warning issued by a Toronto cinema.


Trash Humpers, Enter the Void and the Sensory Shocker

23 Nov

As the horror genre slides ever deeper into a formulaic torpor, two arthouse darlings may just have struck upon a whole new way of disquieting audiences – the sensory shocker. Genre purists aside, most would agree that the essence of horror is the ability to elicit fear, revulsion, panic, discomfort and uncertainty. Regardless of content, it is the emotional response that counts. In an attempt to rouse a jaded audience from its cine-literate ennui, Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noé have resorted to technical extremism in their war on convention, hijacking the means of production to initiate the next leap forward. In doing so, they have upset their staunchest defenders and added grist to their detractors’ mill – Noé’s ‘Enter the Void’ (2009) was pilloried by critics at its Cannes premiere, and Netflix – the ultimate arbiter of taste and bastion of decency – refused to distribute Korine’s ‘Trash Humpers’ (2009) due to its objectionable content. But the rancour of tastemakers only serves to vindicate their stylistic radicalism and bolster their resolve to further push the envelope. Both ‘Trash Humpers’ and ‘Enter the Void’ are designed to repel a generation weaned on high-concept spectacle, sanitized remakes and sniggering plagiarism masquerading as deconstruction – the medium itself is a weapon against the middlebrow, revelling in discomfort, occupying a cinematic hinterland populated by the damaged and abandoned.

Like fellow agent provocateur Lars Von Trier, Korine and Noé take pleasure in goading, even berating, their audience; testing the limits of its tolerance and forcing them to confront some unpleasant truths. Indeed, the sensory shocker philosophically has its roots in the Dogme ‘95 movement, which was a reaction against cinema’s growing profligacy that propounded a ‘year zero’ akin to punk rock – but alas turned out to be more of an elaborate prank against credulous critics than a creative revolution. Though their methods differ wildly, Korine and Noé share Dogme’s aesthetic intransigence; presenting ideas with an implacable purity of purpose, untainted by concessions to popular taste and sentiment. In Korine’s sly primitivism and Noé’s baroque solemnity we see this unwillingness to adulterate their vision in the face of critical derision and public rejection. In an industry that seems content to churn out an endless stream of mediocrity, ‘Enter the Void’ and ‘Trash Humpers’ only serve to highlight the Hollywood machine’s paucity of ambition and dearth of innovation.

It is a horror truism that storytellers can conjure up all manner of beasts and apparitions, but the ultimate figures of terror are the marginal and powerless – the lonely motel owner, inbred redneck, angry teenager, etc. With ‘Trash Humpers’, indie cinema’s idiot savant could be said to have taken the genre back to its heyday – which ran approximately from ‘Psycho’ (1960) to ‘Halloween’ (1978) – in his belief that the real monsters are in our midst. A twisted amalgam of ‘Man Bites Dog’ (1992) and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980), ‘Trash Humpers’ has the feel of a grisly VHS artefact retrieved from a crime scene, or the home movies of a sociopathic family. Its utter lack of technical refinement immediately removes the viewer from any accepted norms of presentation; refusing to meet them half way with its worn, washed out ‘video nasty’ visuals, intermittent bursts of static, frame rolls, on-screen functions, murky sound, sudden cuts and blackouts. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a consciously ugly, wilfully amateurish, malformed cousin of ‘Gummo’ (1997) that exemplifies Korine’s abiding love for jetsam in all its forms.

We learn that the film’s eponymous gang derives pleasure from simulating sex with garbage receptacles – or ‘trash pussies’ – but their identity is never explained. The lack of exposition makes them all the more menacing. Whether they are young people masquerading as old people or vice versa, the gang’s appearance comes across as a parody of youth culture, satirizing our stultifying obsession with the latest fad or affectation. No doubt to avoid claims that these characters are nothing more than conduits for his iconoclastic agenda, Korine strives to lend them a dimension. One gang member avers that he can ‘smell the pain’ of suburban Nashville and another implores God to guide her, but Korine draws the line at taking a stance, neither portraying them in a sympathetic light or castigating their actions. The film’s erratic tone has a disorientating effect – the banal, ludicrous and horrific mingle to the point that the distinction becomes irrelevant, lulling us into accepting their excesses by largely excluding the world beyond. It is only in the fractured snippets of everyday life occurring around them that we begin to get a sense of the gang’s complete isolation from the mainstream of society.

The gang meets a variety of classic Korine eccentrics that serves to mitigate their abnormality and place them in a social context, bolstering Korine’s assertion that you don’t need to look very far to find the detritus of a society built on the principles of predacious consumption and heedless self-gratification. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a broadside against rampant consumerism, a treatise on the nature of obsolescence – the gang is openly hostile to any symbol of youth and vitality, destroying dolls and toys while idolizing the discarded and useless to the point of erotic frenzy. They have transferred their affections to the yielding contours of plastic and steel, wallowing in a world of kitsch certainties. ‘Trash Humpers’ mercilessly slaughters sacred cows and busts taboos, from the narcissistic attention seeking of ‘reality’ TV and YouTube, to our voyeuristic obsession with celebrity, to our retreat into cultural inertia and gleeful juvenilia. Korine has created a set of monsters that hold a mirror up to the folly of a society slowly drowning in its surfeit – a new kind of predator spawned by our greed, feeding on the by-product of our abundance.

Gaspar Noé’s excoriating oeuvre explores the overlap between sex and violence – lust and revenge are equated in films like ‘I Stand Alone’ (1998) and ‘Irreversible’ (2002) – and the visceral intractability of human impulse. Coming from the opposite end of the technical spectrum as ‘Trash Humpers’, ‘Enter the Void’ has been described as a ‘psychedelic melodrama’ and a ‘metaphysical thriller’. From its seizure-inducing titles, this is an attack on the senses. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his Sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), live in Tokyo, eking out a living as a small-time drug dealer and a lap dancer respectively. Seen from Oscar’s point of view, Oscar and his friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), discuss the Tibetan Book of the Dead on their way to a club called The Void, where Oscar is to transact a drug deal with Victor (Olly Alexander), whose mother he has an ‘arrangement’ with. As Oscar enters the tenebrous environs of the club, police swarm into the building. Oscar flees to the bathroom and hides in a stall, where he is shot after refusing to give himself up. His breathing ebbs, his vision blurs, all sound recedes and his heartbeat slows to a halt. His spirit rises from his body and hovers above the scene – much in the manner of the post-shootout scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1974). Devoid of form, Oscar observes those he has left behind from his existential no man’s land.

Structurally, ‘Enter the Void’ echoes Film Noir in its non-linear narrative and use of multiple flashbacks – indeed, one of the film’s primary inspirations was said to have been Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film of Raymond Chandler’s ‘Lady in the Lake’, which was shot entirely from the point of view of its protagonist. Noé recreates each stage of being with a keen eye for detail. The twittering subconscious and fractured perception of the scenes in which we occupy Oscar’s corporeal form perfectly captures his chemically impaired state; while the blurry, flickering photography and throttled sound of the ethereal scenes play like a cosmic Nickelodeon film, alternating frame rates for maximum unease. The scenes from Oscar’s past are shot from over his shoulder, as if, removed from his physical form, Oscar is watching them back in an attempt to make sense of his life. Jean-Andre Carriere and Kikuo Ohta’s production design is a work of staggering bravura, a feat not seen since ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), and the visual effects may well come to be regarded in the same light as Douglas Trumbull’s ground-breaking work on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Tokyo is transformed into a decadent theme park, a garish Day-Glo maelstrom where all earthly pleasure can be purchased, a repository of turpitude where everything is out of kilter. ‘Enter the Void’ is a film for which the use of the term stylized is not pejorative. The film dispenses with the condescending travelogue feel of ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003), gawping in wonderment at the neon metropolis. This version of Tokyo is a simulacrum on which to dramatize man’s gluttonous death wish.

‘Enter the Void’ is a dizzying journey into the heart of corruption; a world where individual freedom is conflated with self-annihilation, whose citizens are engaged in a desperate quest for endless sensation, sheltering from its iniquities in a torrent of narcotics and meaningless sex. Like Korine, Noé doesn’t shy away from charting the bleakest recesses of the human psyche – Oscar is a composite of our failings; a greedy, self-serving Sybarite who leaves a trail of debris in his wake. There is a palpable sense of disgust for, and queasy fascination with, the mechanical act of copulation; Noé presents a series of deeply joyless sex scenes from which he defies the observer to derive any kind of erotic thrill. That Noé is able to maintain our interest in such a downcast setting over the course of the film’s lengthy meditation is a testament to his skill as a storyteller. Noé navigates the labyrinth and stares into the abyss, but ‘Enter the Void’ ultimately veers away from the brutal nihilism of ‘Irreversible’ – the film seems willing to envisage a renewal of humanity’s beleaguered spirit. ‘Enter the Void’ has astounding ambition and intellectual curiosity, dealing with concepts and ideas that most mainstream films would shrink from for fear of alienating or confusing its audience – after all, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public. Noé harnesses a myriad of techniques to realize his vision, creating an amazing yet horrific landscape that lingers long in the memory. It will be interesting to see how their peers respond to the gauntlet thrown down by the originators of the Sensory Shocker.

Gasp and Harm take a moment from offending your sensibilities to enjoy the sights of Skegness.