Last weekend I revisited LvT’s Breaking the Waves, which made a huge impression on me as a budding film enthusiast back in the late ’90s. It still feels like a masterpiece to me, and Emily Watson’s performance is as affecting as ever (funnier than I remember, too; apparently vT had her study not only Falconetti in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc but also Giulietta Masina in La Strada, which may account for the more clownish touches). For grandiosity and sheer ballsiness, I don’t think he matches this movie until Melancholia, which may explain why the two are at the top of my list of favorites. vT does best when he swings for the fences—when he’s using broad strokes and dealing with big ideas. I’m reminded of a line from Pauline Kael: “Art doesn’t come in measured quantities: it’s got to be too much or it’s not enough.” The too-muchness about Breaking the Waves—the emotional relentlessness, the visceral acting style, the anachronistic use of 70s pop music, the supernatural touches, the nearly three-hour running time—is what makes it great, too.
Moonrise Kingdom takes place, as all of writer-director Wes Anderson’s films do, in a world of his own making. It’s a child’s-eye view of summer, 1965, rendered in the style of vintage juvenile fiction (the kinds of witty, precocious books by people like E. L. Konigsberg and Louise Fitzhugh) with a few flourishes borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard, set to the children’s choral music of Benjamin Britten. The film’s vintage setting allows Anderson to add a layer of period detail to his meticulously designed costumes and art direction, and also lends the film a nostalgic haze—it’s a paean both to the innocent summer adventures of childhood and to the kinds of whimsically clever children’s stories (for page and screen) that don’t often get told anymore.
Pictured above: the irascible neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) confronts his nemesis, the hypochondriacal spiritualist Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) as both of them attempt to break into the hospital archives in Episode 4 of LvT’s miniseries Riget (The Kingdom), which aired on Danish television in 1994. It’s a project that represents a turning point in vT’s career for a number of reasons: it marks his first unqualified success (the series was wildly popular with both audiences and critics, and went on to win major prizes), demonstrates a newfound command over tone and narrative (especially in his deft shifts from dark comedy to Gothic to kitschy melodrama), and introduces a binarism that will continue to structure most of his major films through Melancholia (2011), namely the conflict between reason/rationality/science, nearly always coded as masculine, and the irrational/supernatural/spiritual, usually embodied by a woman viewed as mentally unstable in some way or another. (“Here is a picture of her nut,” Helmer says, looking at one of Mrs. Drusse’s X-rays. “There is some gray matter slopping about inside it. The ill-informed would call it her brain.” He also calls her a “numbskull.” Cf. the heroines of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, etc., who are “crazy” or “not right in the head.”) In vT’s universe, female irrationality almost always trumps masculine logic—though usually at some (usually catastrophic) cost. As the final moments of Series One of The Kingdom reveal, Mrs. Drusse has succeeded in both raising and exorcising the ghosts of Helmer’s past, but has inadvertently opened a portal to hell in the process.
I’ll be posting next week about von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994), which I and my intrepid viewing companions are currently in the middle of watching, so I thought I would float out some ideas this week about the near-vitriolic resistance to von Trier’s work that I’ve repeatedly encountered in the month or so since I began this project. In chatting with various friends and acquaintances (some of whom are more cinephilic than others, all of whom are smart, artistically inclined people), I’ve found that von Trier’s name generally prompts some form of teeth-gritting, if not outright consternation. When pressed, these folks have raised objections to von Trier’s work ranging from “his presence as a filmmaker is too imposing” to “it’s always about a suffering woman”; one person even told me that she turned off one of his films in the middle and vowed never to watch another one.
A representative image from Europa (1991), probably the best of von Trier’s early efforts, which my fellow LvT fans and I screened Sunday night. It’s an example of von Trier’s experimentation with rear- and front-screen projection, in which images are densely layered on top of one another to disorienting and often clever effect. (von Trier also experiments with color and black-and-white throughout the film, at times shifting from one to the other within a single shot.) Europa is so heavily stylized that it becomes tempting to ignore the plot and to lose oneself in the images; like all of von Trier’s early films, it’s more successful as a stylistic exercise than as a piece of storytelling. That said, the film—which concerns Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an idealistic American sleeping car conductor who becomes embroiled in the politics of postwar Germany—is considerably more engaging on a narrative level than The Element of Crime or Medea, both of which suffer from serious pacing issues.
Tim Burton has always been drawn to material that borders on camp; even his darkest and bloodiest films, such as his big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (2007), are laced with broad humor and a kind of juicy relish for excess. So it’s appropriate that Burton would choose to revive the late ’60s/early ’70s Gothic soap Dark Shadows as a horror comedy set in 1972 (the year after the show ended). No longer a straight-forward vampire saga, it’s now a fish-out-of-water tale in which the undead Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp) rises from the grave to find himself in a world of lava lamps, disco balls, and Bakelite dishes. It’s a variation on Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), in which Depp played a Frankenstein’s monster transported from haunted castle to pastel suburbia.