May 21, 2011

Lars von Trier - Persona non Grata

Lars von Trier Danish Lars von Trier is a great filmmaker. He's also as inept a masochist as he is a humorist. Von Trier's snarky comment "Okay, I'm a Nazi," made during his press conference in Cannes in support of his competing movie "Melancholia," was delivered with a heavy dose of grandstanding irony that doesn't translate well on paper. It was as if he was saying, yeah, and I'm a mass murderer too, as a way of putting a cherry on a fallen cake. It wasn't a smart way to wrap up his attempt at being entertaining. He fed himself to the hungry wolves—i.e. and international press itching for something incendiary to write about. To watch Kirsten Dunst sitting next to him at the press conference trying to stop him with harsh looks and even a whispered request, as he digs himself into pit of idiocy, was as squirm-inducing as von Trier's outlandish comments. His statements about empathizing with Hitler as he sat in his bunker proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. More interesting than von Trier's Johnny Rotten-styled attempt at giving the press what they wanted was their response. Von Trier succeeded in shocking them to their fragile core. The Cannes Festival board of directors took quick steps to extract an apology from von Trier before kicking him out of the festival as a persona non grata. Von Trier blamed his "stupid" behavior on his recent return to sobriety and a "perverse need to please." Masochism is a tough business."

Lars3Von Trier says he's proud to be persona non grata and that he won't be doing anymore press conferences in the future. That’s too bad. He certainly has a great headstone epitaph now. As von Trier did with the self-imposed limitations of his influential "Dogma 95" film theory, he has placed himself in a kind of exile. One thing you can bet on is that his films will be as interesting and controversial as ever.

2011 is the year of apocalypse in cinema. "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter" and "Melancholia" each offer differing visions of Earth's fast waning days. Lars von Trier evinces consolation for the end of planet Earth and all its evil inhabitants in the form of a colossal planet named Melancholia, which is travelling on an elliptical collision course.

Von Trier opens the film with one of the most haunting and lushly composed sequences ever captured on film. Kirsten Dunst's Justine placidly observes in hyper slow motion electricity that flows between an overcast sky and her fingertips. Black magic is upon her. Black birds fall around her like harbingers of a funeral procession. Dunst’s delicate features are filled with stern ambivalence. As she reveals through her actions during the night of her wedding party, Justine’s atheism has prepared her better than believers to live out the final hours of human existence with a composure calculated to allow for whatever impulsive choices she might make. Telling off her demanding boss, and cheating on her doting husband (Alexander Skarsgård) of just a few hours during the wedding party, are obligatory actions. Justine is an anti-heroine without a trace of superficiality. She's a lying, cheating hypocrite just like everyone else. The difference is she admits it to herself. If Justine sounds like an alter-ego of the filmmaker who shook the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, she most certainly is.

If von Trier’s more deserving "Melancholia" had won the Palme d'or over Terrence Malick's winning "Tree of Life," in spite of von Trier's "persona non grata" status, there would have been a hurricane of journalists going wild. Justice would have been served. Having seen both films, I can say with certainty that "Melancholia" is the far better of the two. No contest. It's interesting to see what makes the media go ballistic in an era when there's 25% unemployment in America and Mother Nature is demolishing wide swaths of the planet every other week.

As with all of von Trier’s films, “Melancholia” will divide audiences. Atheist viewers can take special pleasure in von Trier’s exquisitely uncompromising vision. After all, what’s a beginning without an end?


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