Because I’m a completist and therefore committed to working my way through all of LvT’s filmography this summer—the good, the bad, and the ugly—I made sure not to skip his 75-minute adaptation of Medea, made for Danish television in 1988. (vT also directed some interesting-sounding commercials during this period, including a rather saucy one for the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet, but I’ve unfortunately been unable to track them down.) vT’s Medea follows not the original Euripides text but a previously unfilmed screenplay written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose work the young vT greatly admired, and rightly so. It thus acts as a kind of thematic hinge connecting both of their bodies of work; vT and Dreyer are both preoccupied by, even obsessed with, what we might call the “suffering woman” plot, coupled with a side interest in the supernatural. (The other vT film that Medea most calls to mind is Antichrist, with its battle of the sexes set against a vision of nature that is as menacing as it is eerily beautiful, as the screengrab above shows. When Medea is accused to being a witch, a woman who represents all of the world’s evil, it’s hard not to think of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in the later film.)
Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, shot covertly in Panahi’s Tehran apartment and smuggled out of the country in a cake, refers to itself as “an effort” instead of a film—partly in order to raise teasing questions about what films are/are not, but also, it seems, for legal reasons. After running into numerous conflicts with the Iranian government over the course of his career, Panahi has been sentenced to house arrest and forbidden from making films for twenty years. This Is Not a Film, then, becomes an act of artistic nose-thumbing, a snapshot of Iranian life so mundane and uneventful that it seems incapable of giving offense, yet one in which every incident is so loaded with political weight that it ends up being even more excoriating a critique of its government’s politics than if it had been twice as pointed. It’s a clever, beguiling piece of political cinema as well as an experiment in film theory, a meditation on what and how films mean, in every sense of that term.
Lars von Trier’s sophomore effort Epidemic, made only three years after The Element of Crime, marks the birth of von Trier as merry prankster. Starring in the film as a somewhat distorted version of himself—note his telling sidelong glance to the camera, doubled in his own reflection, in the screengrab above—von Trier turns Epidemic into a meta-cinematic game of the type he will later play with Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions (2003). Like that film, Epidemic treats filmmaking as a dare or a challenge, something done under pressure: it was apparently made in response to von Trier’s bet with producer Claes Kastholm Hansen that he could make a film for under 1 million kroner, and it also concerns itself with the efforts of a pair of screenwriters (played by von Trier and Niels Vørsel) to cobble together a screenplay in five days to present to Hansen. (Vørsel and Hansen also play themselves in the film.)
This summer, I’ve roped a few brave friends and colleagues into joining me as I work my way through the filmography of the inimitable Lars von Trier, starting with his first feature, 1984’s The Element of Crime, and proceeding chronologically up through last year’s Melancholia. I’ve been a fan of von Trier’s work ever since I saw Breaking the Waves (1996) as a young teenager, so I figured I’d make this an excuse to revisit my favorites, re-consider some of the duds, and assess the handful of his films that I’ve missed. I’m also using this as an opportunity to check out Linda Badley’s recently published monograph on von Trier’s films; it promises to be a solid read, and it’s always interesting to hear women’s perspectives on von Trier’s work, given his tendentious handling of gender, sex, and female victimization. All in all, it promises to be a fun and exciting project.
I’m a bit late in doing so, but I wanted to weigh in on the last two films I caught at IFF Boston last weekend, both of which feature the formidable talents of Rosemarie DeWitt (pictured above), perhaps best known for her recurring role on the first season of AMC’s Mad Men and as the title character in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008). In Lynn Shelton’s breezy, gentle comedy Your Sister’s Sister (set to open nationally in June), DeWitt and Emily Blunt play a pair of half-sisters, both of whom find themselves emotionally and sexually entangled—though in quite different ways—with a grief-stricken Mark Duplass. In Ry Russo Young’s Nobody Walks, a pricklier (though altogether less satisfying) dramedy about betrayal and responsibility, she appears as a psychiatrist trying both to fend off the advances of a predatory client and to monitor the sexual sparks flying between her husband (John Krasinski) and their houseguest (Olivia Thirlby), an experimental filmmaker.