Watch: Lars von Trier Is the Filmmaker of Assault

Watch: Lars von Trier Is the Filmmaker of Assault

Though often packaged and presented immaculately, the films of Lars von Trier, from ‘Melancholia’ to ‘Dogville’ to ‘Dancer in the Dark’ to ‘Antichrist’ to ‘Manderlay’ to ‘Nymphomaniac’, are essentially assaultive. Oddly enough, though, you almost never expect the assaults they deliver. 

Ah, what beautiful music, with snow falling, a slow motion love sc–oh, wait, a baby just fell out a window.

Or: What a beautiful house, with gorgeously landscaped grounds. You’d never think the world was about to–wait, is that Kirsten Dunst, sprawled naked in some ferns?

Or: Nicole Kidman is a remarkably versatile actress, whose talents are well-suited to–oh, my God, what are they doing to her? Yeesh!

Or: I just love Bjork’s bizarre, personalized musical stylings. It’s so wonderful that she–god, I’m depressed. I’m not sure I can move my limbs, I’m so sad. Help!

Or: Gosh, this soda tastes good on such a hot–ouch! Watch that two-by-four, Willem!

You get the idea. In any event, Alex Kalogeropoulos’s video above succinctly and smartly captures the spirit of aggression running through von Trier’s work. So, get ready, and take a look.

VIDEO ESSAY: Lars Von Trier: Cinema’s Dancer in the Dark

VIDEO ESSAY: Lars Von Trier: Cinema’s Dancer in the Dark

In my writing group, a friend describes the way that, when
you edit a piece of writing, you should look for hot spots, places where the
strength of emotion is so great that heat radiates outwards. These are the
places that jolt the heart, that cause a vibration in your spine.

In Lars von Trier’s body of work there is nothing but this
kind of heat: piercing, exhilarating, painful, heartbreaking. When you watch
von Trier, every part of you wakes up, even parts you don’t like very much. A
von Trier film is a visceral experience. You can see this in Nelson Carvajal’s
brilliant video essay: a clamor of sounds, an array of confusing images,
panicked cuts. In a von Trier film you aren’t allowed to look away: not from
suffering, not from sex, not from heartache, not from desperation, not from
human evil, and not from the pain of lost innocence either. 

In many of von Trier’s earlier works, like Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, overwhelming emotion is
evoked through quick, jerky camera movements and raw acting. In his Golden
Hearts Trilogy, von Trier is particularly interested in looking at the purity
of altruism, while his more painful films often beg the question of whether
there is anything noble in sacrifice at all. 
Some feminists criticize the way von Trier depicts his heroines, his
obsession with their suffering, but von Trier’s films never struck me as
misogynistic, as some critics claim. His heroines are complex and authentic.
They make choices with conviction, even when those choices end up being the end
of them. In short, von Trier’s female characters are given permission to have a
kind of existential hunger that few “strong female characters” are ever able to

In recent films, like Melancholia,
Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, von Trier commands this same intensity as in his
earlier movies, while focusing more on languid scenes that showcase the horror
and beauty contained within the natural world. In von Trier’s universe, human
beings are brainy and removed from this landscape, yet also inextricably bound
up in it, constantly coming into contact with their animal selves, naked,
lustful, hungry. At the start of Antichrist a couple makes love to
classical music, while their baby falls out a window to his death. In Nymphomaniac,
a character muses about Fibonacci sequences and the intellectual pleasures of
fly-fishing, in between scenes of animalistic intercourse. And in Melancholia
all the scientific study in the world can’t save humanity from a star quietly
hurling itself into the earth.

While von Trier’s heroines are often presented as
Christ-like figures, he is less invested in exploring the fall from grace than in showing the messiness of the human experience and what happens when
Icarus flies too close to the sun.

In this way, von Trier’s power comes not simply from making
us empathize with another’s pain, but also allowing us to feel the dizzying
hope of free fall: from that moment before we give up, when all we can do is
reach.–Arielle Bernstein

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

A New Press Play Column: 10/40/70: Melancholia

A New Press Play Column: 10/40/70

This experimental film column began its life at The Rumpus, and we are very excited to see it continue here.  The column freezes the frames of a film at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks, using these points as the foundations for an essay.null

10 minutes:

The remarkable thing about Melancholia’s early, just married, journey-to-the-castle scenes featuring newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is that, in retrospect, you come to understand that Justine was just play acting. In probably the freshest use and subversion of the Dogme 95 style since The Celebration, these early scenes convey a spontaneity and naturalness (as opposed to the elaborately staged, slow motion prelude) that is highly expressionistic and self-consciously artful. Although the prelude has received the lion’s share of critical attention, it is the scene in and around the limousine, as it maneuvers a sharp turn in the dirt road that leads (presumably from “the Village,” which remains off screen and implied) to the place where Justine’s depression will first express itself. Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia’s cinematographer (the film was shot digitally on an Arri Alexa), has said that his “aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves.”

And so this moment, at the 10 minute mark, we have the tenderness of Justine’s hand on Michael’s cheek, a gesture which seems so genuine but which, in a fine example of delayed decoding, suggests a different meaning, one in which Justine (who will end up having sex, in just a few hours, not with her new husband, but with a young man she is introduced to by her boss at the wedding party). The great English literary historian Ian Watt,, in a study of the works of Joseph Conrad (whose romantic determinism has something in common with von Trier’s), defined delayed decoding as “the forward temporal progression of the mind, as it receives messages from the outside world, with the much slower reflexive process of making out their meaning.” It is, perhaps, only at the end of Melancholia that we remember the early lightness of spirit around the 10-minute mark and wonder: was this all a heroic feat of acting by Justine?null

40 minutes:

Having disappeared from her own wedding reception, Justine is tracked down by her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). At the 40-minute mark (which comes during his line “On whether or not we have a deal” from the exchange below), we see him in near silhouette profile, his face filling nearly half the screen:

JOHN: Do you have any idea how much this party cost me? A ballpark figure?

JUSTINE: No, I don’t. Should I?

JOHN: Yes, I think you should. A great deal of money. A huge amount of money. In fact, for most people, an arm and a leg.

JUSTINE: I hope you feel it’s well spent.

JOHN: Well that depends. On whether or not we have a deal.

JUSTINE: A deal?

JOHN: Yes, a deal. That you be happy.

JUSTINE: Yes, of course. Of course we have a deal.

John seems to be speaking not only to Justine here, but to us as well, as the film’s (or any film’s) audience, demanding that we acknowledge “the deal” (the relationship between the film and ourselves) and that we uphold our end of the deal by being “happy.”  In other words, did we get a good “product” for our ticket? (John, as a totalitarian in the realm of feeling, does not instruct Justine merely to act happy, but to be happy.) On one level, John’s instruction is a weird reversal of Jonathan Franzen’s distinction between, in fiction, the Status model and the Contract model. In the Status model, Franzen’s argument goes, the feelings of the average reader simply don’t matter: if readers don’t “get” the book, they are philistines unable to appreciate the complex work of genius. The Contract model, on the other hand, presupposes that “every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader's attention only as long as the author sustains the reader's trust. This is the Contract model. The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection.”

John, from this angle, is von Trier’s sly stand-in for a tyrannical director (“do you have any idea how much this [movie] cost me? A huge amount of money”) who orders his actress [audience?] to “be happy.” And Justine has pretended so well up until now. She flees the set in costume, the ridiculous costume that is her wedding dress, and is cornered in the dark by her dark director.null

70 minutes:

Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) near the beginning of Part 2, on the phone with Claire, who has re-entered the orbit of full-blown depression, a depression which brings her fatally close to Claire. “Hello, darling, how are you?” Claire asks Justine, John hovering and speaking in exasperated whispers (perhaps giving voice to our own “common sense” as viewers, the part of us that resists seeing Justine as the noble, tormented sister who dares to face the truth of extinction, unlike Claire), “Just do as I’ve told you. There’s a taxi down the street, waiting for you. Just open the door and get in. Just get in the cab, darling.” Claire is caught in motion. She passes through frames more swiftly than her sister, as if movement can help her elude the inevitability of the internal catastrophe that is her sister’s fate and her own.

The in-between moment of this frame is un-reckonable, the looming of a vast Disorder.

The Village cannot be reached.

The horses will not cross over.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. For more entries from the 10/40/70 series, check here.

LISA ROSMAN: Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA is a masterpiece

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier and starring Kirsten Dunst


Lars von Trier is not a brother who provokes a neutral response: there are those who feel he can do no wrong, and then there are naysayers like me. Although I consider Dancer in the Dark one of the best movies of the last decade, I swore I’d never sit through another of his films after suffering through the school-play machinations of Dogville. A guy who so unilaterally criticizes America without ever having stepped foot on its soil deserves a similar boycott, I declared.  

But now that he’s taken psychological projection to unprecedented proportions, he’s become downright fascinating.  

More navel-brandishing than navel-gazing, his last two films have served as gorgeous canvases upon which his worst fears and miseries are writ so large that they articulate the human condition with a grandeur normally only achieved by Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. In 2009’s Antichrist, for example, von Trier makes literal that most scorching of Freudian themes – castration – and his latest is by far the cleverest rendition of the strain of pre-2012 apocalyptic films circulating through cinemas. In it, he not only globalizes his own depressive and suicidal tendencies but renders them universal in the form of a deadly asteroid dubbed Melancholia hurtling directly toward planet Earth. Subtext as supertext; subconscious as supercosmos. Not to mention supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

nullThat said, this isn’t just Lars’ world that we’re living in this time. It’s also Kirsten Dunst’s. Women cast in the Danish writer/director’s films rarely fare well, as they’re typically limited to only one of the three faces of Mommy von Trier: wan, hysterical or brutal. (Should this sound hyperbolic, consider the 2009 New York Film Festival videoconference in which von Trier claimed that not even the psychotic, castrating mother of Antichristcompared to [his] mother.”) Here, Dunst is cast as a stand-in for von Trier himself, and she sinks her famously crooked fangs into his despair but good.  

She’s always been a more nuanced actress than is widely recognized, radiating a weary patience that elevates even her most flatfooted projects (Marie Antoinette, Elizabethtown). But as Justine, the melancholic in question, she mines new colors in her work. This would be ironic since, like most depressives, von Trier’s film is usually monochromatic in tone if not in its often-lush cinematography. But Dunst, who’s been open about her own struggles with depression, seems liberated by the dark material – much like her character as she prepares for the end of a world she finds so painful.  

The film is divided into two sections; the first, “Justine,” consists of the character’s horrific bridal party at the palatial estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, as green at the gills as most of L.v.T.’s heroines). From the first scene, in which she and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård, so housebroken that he’s virtually unrecognizable from his True Blood incarnation), get stuck on a country road in their garishly large stretch limo, the point is clear: this girl doesn’t fit in the materialistic (or arguably even the material) world. And yet, also like Lars himself, she’s not terrible at manipulating these slick surfaces, a reality which only seems to exacerbate her self-loathing. (I've alway found it amusing that this pronounced anti-materialist makes films that look like Obsession commercials.) In fact, she’s such an advertising whiz that her cad of a boss (Stellan Skarsgård) weasels for her help even in his wedding toast. Capitalists being von Trier’s second-favorite scapegoat after bad mommies, this is one of the clunkiest notes of this film. Her tight smile is not.  

nullAll the bridal toasts put Justine under the table. The more others urge happiness upon her, the more she visibly cringes. (I couldn’t help but recall my Israeli ex-shrink’s words to me: “Happiness is so America! Better to aim for truth!”) Worse, her divorced parents use their toasts as a platform for skewering each other in front of an audience. A lethal contrarian masquerading as a mere nonconformist, her mother (Charlotte Rampling sporting tie-dye!) is so solipsistically scathing (“I don’t believe in marriage!”) that Justine crumples into a state from which she, and ultimately everyone around her, cannot recover. She disappears from the wedding party in order to take a bath, reappears to take a piss on the lawn as well as on her boss (only slightly less literally) and, finally, fucks a corporate lackey out on the golf course for all to see. There’s no wedding cake in the world sweet enough to take the edge off that move.  

By the beginning of “Claire,” the film’s second section, Justine is so catatonic that she can’t keep her eyes open, let alone bathe or feed herself. Claire and her ever-irked husband (a brilliantly cast Kiefer Sutherland) do their best to prop her back up, but they’re unhinged by the threat of the potentially lethal asteroid rushing toward Earth.  

nullIronically, by helming a film that basks in the depressive’s view on life, von Trier finally has created a film that legitimately allows for other perspectives as well. Claire may also recognize the weakness and selfishness of the world around her, but she still embraces its blessings. She may have been as unnurtured as Justine (and may have chosen a sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing husband to provide cold comfort) but she can still love her son and sister as well as life itself. So it makes sense that, faced with its extinction, she now needs care-taking, while Justine, whose depression has previously rendered her as cruel as her black hole of a mother, can finally exhibit compassion and vitality. She can afford to. Since she views Earth as an extension of the squalid emptiness roaring within her, the prospect of its demise is enthralling.  

In what very well may be one of the loveliest moments in 2011 cinema, a panic-stricken Claire trails her sister as she steals into the woods. There, Justine offers her naked body to the moonlight like a sylph, like a siren, like a sister of no mercy. Only what is wild, what is wholly undoctored, is real to her. The rest, all of what humankind has created, is bullshit that deserves to be put out of its misery – including herself. No wonder she surrenders to the coming maelstrom with ecstasy.

In Melancholia, von Trier has created a mission statement of a masterpiece, one that reminds us that nihilism itself can serve as a legitimate form of creation, a means as well as The End. It’s the ultimate inversion of the old hippie phrase “think global, act local,” and, against all odds, it works.

Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York,, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.