Cosmopolis marks another misfire for David Cronenberg, whose prior film, last year’s A Dangerous Method, was sunk by too much stilted talk. Cosmopolis suffers from a similar problem: adapted from one of Don DeLillo’s slighter novels, its dialogue (much of which seems to have been lifted more or less verbatim from the text) is dense and tortuous, and there’s a lot of it to cut through. But Cronenberg is such a boldly intelligent artist that even his less successful films are worth seeing, this one included. Even if Cosmopolis may not be good enough to stand on its own as memorable cinema, it seamlessly fits into Cronenberg’s body of work in ways that are rarely not interesting or suggestive. Curiously, Cronenberg may be a master filmmaker whose corpus is greater than the sum of its parts, or at least one who isn’t hurt by the occasional dud. Even his weaker films are so vividly, identifiably his own, and so much of a piece with his masterpieces, that they start to feel somehow indispensable in their own rights. Cosmopolis is no exception. Watching it, we’re drawn into a nightmarish world of sex, violence, and bodily abjection that can only be called Cronenbergian, and we’re reminded of the kinds of inimitably weird moods and textures that have defined his work for over thirty years.
If there’s one thing that’s become even more strikingly clear to me than it was before spending this summer with Lars, it’s the intertextual density of his films; each one is like an echo chamber reverberating with allusions to other films, performances, images, genres. Melancholia (2011) recalls not only Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) and fellow Dogme auteur Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998), but also the first chapter (“Bess Gets Married”) of von Trier’s own Breaking the Waves. It occurred to me while watching Melancholia last night for the first time since seeing it theatrically last fall (I’m happy to report that it’s still my favorite film of last year) that Melancholia’s Justine (Kirsten Dunst) could be read as Bess’s dark doppelganger.
I’ll confess to having seen Antichrist three times now—theatrically in October 2009, on video September 2011, and now again last week—and each time I’ve found myself confounded by its vividness, its rawness, and its at-times colossal stupidity. I’m convinced that it’s one of those films that ends up getting pulled in half by its own extremes, which is perhaps appropriate, considering that Antichrist itself is about being pulled apart, mutilated, scarred. The problem, so far as one sees it as a problem (I do, though as far as failures go at least Antichrist is an interesting one), is that the film has fallen victim to its own philosophy. It is governed by an aesthetic of mutilation. Halfway through, it seems to sloppily fit a supernatural horror film onto what had previously been a moody psychodrama. Characters incongruently reverse polarities, moralities, sexual positions. Even the title card and chapter headings are rendered messily, as if finger-painted by a feral child (see below).
LvT’s farcical office comedy The Boss of It All (2007) seems to me best interpreted as an allegory about the constant struggle of actor and director—a struggle that has come to structure prevailing accounts of von Trier’s own career. vT’s reputation as a controlling, even abusive director of actors rivals that of Hitchcock (one of his cinematic mentors); tales of Bjork fleeing the set of Dancer in the Dark in tears, or vague rumors about Nicole Kidman being so traumatized during the filming of Dogville that she refused to reprise her role in Manderlay, have become part of the von Trier mythos. In Kidman’s case, it seems that her experience on Dogville was exhausting and challenging, but she has never claimed to have been scarred by the experience, and her absence from Manderlay was primarily due to scheduling conflicts than personal ones. The word on the street is that she is scheduled to appear in von Trier’s upcoming Nymphomaniac. Nevertheless, vT’s name has become a signifier for the director as tyrant, looking on coldly as he forces his (mostly female) actors to suffer untold abuse.
The opening narration of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse recounts the story of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s encounter with a cab driver seen beating his horse in the street; Nietzsche is said to have flung his arms around the animal’s neck, sobbing in protest. Following this incident, Nietzsche lived out the remainder of his life in despair and madness, but Tarr’s narrator tells us that “of the horse, we know nothing.” In Tarr’s imagined ending to her story, the horse suffers a fate arguably as bleak as Neitzsche’s. She is driven home by her master, a white-bearded peasant who lives with his daughter in a cottage that appears to be situated at the edge of the universe. Over the course of the next six days, the horse first refuses to pull the cart, then refuses to eat, then refuses water. Inside the cottage, father and daughter eke out a meager existence characterized by punishing routine (she fetches water from the well; she boils potatoes; they eat in silence). Outside the cottage, a heavy wind blows.
Over the course of the last decade Andrei Zvyagintsev has made a name for himself as one of the most talented Russian filmmakers working today; I still remember being stunned by his debut feature, The Return (2004), which was one of my favorite films of that year. His new film Elena is more muted and ultimately less shattering. But like The Return it demonstrates Zvyagintsev’s talent for finding tension and violence in the everyday. In Zvyagintsev’s films, dramatic power grows subtly and sinuously out of relationships between characters; although his films are rooted in specific Russian milieux (here, the world of contemporary bourgeois domesticity and its underside, that of the impoverished working class), they’re largely psychological films. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Zvyagintsev makes thrillers in which the dramatic tension grows out of both the psychological and the social dimensions of modern-day Russia. I recently heard him compared to Claude Chabrol, and I think that’s right; he has the same interest in plots that hinge on social and psychological manipulation, and the same taste for bitter irony.
I’ll be taking a week off from my LvT screening project (to resume with The Boss of It All), but I wanted to say a word or two about the mostly unloved Manderlay (2006), the second installment of vT’s so called “USA trilogy” that began with Dogville. I’ll go ahead and admit that most of Manderlay works for me, though set alongside Dogville it’s obviously the weaker film, and not only because two of its best actors (Nicole Kidman and James Caan) don’t come back to reprise their roles (they’re replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard and Willem Dafoe, who turn in workable performances of their own right). Might the difference between the two boil down to vT’s decision to turn the silent-sufferer-turned-vigilante Grace of the earlier film into what Linda Badley calls a “white, perky, and shallow All-American Girl stereotype”? It’s an ironic and jarring character shift, perhaps due in part to the screen presence of Howard (who, for all her attempts at gravitas, comes off as more of a petulant child than Kidman—especially in the way she says “Daddy!”). But it makes a kind of weird logical sense that the Grace of Manderlay is not the same Grace from Dogville. Seemingly more naïve but ultimately nastier and more self-satisfied than in the earlier film, this Grace has been born out of the violence of Dogville’s climax, ready to exercise her iron will wherever she can. Like a Henry James heroine, Dogville’s Grace learns the lesson that one must do ill unto others or else others will do ill unto oneself; it’s a brutal and terrible lesson, but her learning it makes for devastatingly good storytelling, as it so often does in James. The problem, narratively speaking, is that after learning that lesson Grace isn’t as compelling, her fall from innocence (or from grace, as the case may be) being already over; she’s much less interesting as villain than as victim-turned-villain.