Even before bad things start to happen, it’s clear that something is seriously off in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. There’s a cringy neediness to teenaged Martin who goes to see cardiologist Steven at the hospital every single day, but it’s more than that: without ever spelling it out, he demands the older man’s attention and care, as if the heart surgeon owed him. As if the young man had something on him. There’s more than a hint of blackmail in the daily visits, the disproportional gifts he gets from Stephen, the teenager’s wheedling but insistent voice – and the complete absence of any resistance on Steven’s part. It’s as if he already fears the punishment that might follow.
Is there an actor better than Brendan Gleeson when it comes to evoking the strange, rare combination of exasperation and sadness? Look at his filmography and you’ll find funny, poignant performances throughout, from The General and The Tailor of Panama via 28 Days Later (he makes it out of the film before the shaky ending, though not before breaking our hearts) to Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, where he’s the perfect complement to Colin Farrell’s thick, tragicomic protagonist.
Is it ironic or intentional that Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac didn’t get much of a rise out of me? I wouldn’t call myself a von Trier fan, but I very much liked Melancholia and The Five Obstructions, and I found many things to appreciate in Dogville, Antichrist and even Dancer in the Dark, even though there was also a lot about these films that irritated me. In online discussions about the Danish enfant terrible and his films, more often than not I’ve defended him: his provocations are smarter and less adolescent than they may look at first (though I’m sure the director is quite happy being an adolescent by choice at times), he’s not just screwing with his audience because it gets him all hot and bothered. He chafes, but the friction is there for a reason.
I almost managed to live to the age of 40 thinking that Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz would be a film I’d hate. High camp, stage dancers from the days when disco was just about still alive but definitely already starting to smell funny funny and the like aren’t exactly on my list of favourite things; I’m more of a whiskers on kittens and David Fincher’s Seven kinda guy. It was only when Criterion brought the film out on Blu-ray and Matt Zoller Seitz did his video essay on the film (embedded at the bottom of this post) that I thought I should perhaps try to get over my Fear of a Leotard Planet.
In short, I was transfixed. A couple of years ago I wrote about artifice and authenticity in films, and already while watching All that Jazz I was startled how well the former was used to evoke the latter. The film is often highly stylised, it eschews the surface markers of realism, it embraces camp and staginess like so few films do, and even fewer do successfully. The style of All that Jazz is showy, but it’s never insecure or needy: there’s an almost staggering confidence at play in the film. It’s rare to find a film that has learnt the right lessons from theatre, and that understands how limiting cinema’s obsession with realism is.
That’s perhaps the main thing I took away from All that Jazz: it’s exciting to see a film that isn’t beholden to a narrowly defined and all too often shallow representational realism. While it wouldn’t fit all kinds of films and stories, the kind of illusion that’s more common to the stage is something I wish film would embrace more often. Filmmakers try to make things look more real, but we know that what we see isn’t real: the dinosaurs and flying superheroes are pixels, that tower with a big flaming eye on top is a miniature, and that guy running with a gun is Tom Cruise. There’s a certain demented futility to the extent to which cinema is often at cross-purposes with itself: movies want you to get excited about the extravagant illusions they create, yet they want to hide the fact that they are illusions. There’s a fetish of the seamless – and it isn’t limited to CGI orgies: in a way, what Linklater was aiming for with Boyhood was also the seamless appearance of reality. There’s definitely a place for that, but realism isn’t inherently more valuable than other modes of representation. To my mind the most powerful illusion is often not the one that is seamless: it’s the one where the audience sees the illusion for what it is, a mirage, and fully buys into it nevertheless.
On the stage, we can watch an actor slip from one role into another, yet make them all real. There’s no need for Academy Award-winning makeup to hide the fact that we’re still looking at, say, Meryl Streep. A different hat, changed body language, all of these change an actor from a young man into an old woman, and both can touch our heart. The audience doesn’t just watch the illusion, it becomes complicit in it, intensifying the effect. I’ve seen a modern actor playing an Elizabethan player playing Thisbe, making us laugh at the incongruity one moment and cry the next as Thisbe’s pain and death feel utterly real. When it works, that reality is in no way diminished by the obvious artifice of it all. To make the audience see both the trick and the reality of what the trick presents at the same time, that’s magic. As Tony Kushner wrote in his stage directions to Angels in America: “It’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do.”
Obviously, film isn’t theatre, and what works in one medium has to be adapted for another. I wouldn’t want all movies to resort to the Brechtian strategies Lars von Trier resorted to in Dogville. I do want film to be less fixated on the invisibility of its illusions, though: the more magic happens entirely on the screen, the less it happens in my mind. All that Jazz‘ magic isn’t entirely that of the stage and its visible wires, but it rejects a superficial realism. It invites the audience into a much larger and more exciting space. Its reality is emotional first and foremost, its razzle and dazzle is artificial and has no qualms about this – artifice can heighten reality much more than a seamless illusion can. It opens up space and time, showing what a tiny stage realism is. How many leotarded angels can dance on the head of the pin that is realism? Many times fewer than Fosse was able to imagine, I’ll wager.
Note (to self as much as to anyone else): This should’ve gone up a while ago, but it seems it’s been stuck in draft limbo. If anyone feels they’ve already read this one, let me know, because that would be a sign that my mind – or at least my memory – is pretty much going.
I’d been avoiding Lars von Trier’s Antichrist for a while, mainly because I dislike provocation for provocation’s sake, and that’s what Lars von Trier’s public persona largely seems to be about. Having finally seen the film, I have to admit that it didn’t strike me as adolescently provocative as the man himself – and credit where credit’s due, von Trier makes highly unique films* that are fascinating examples of the craft. Antichrist is a striking film, although for each effective scene there’s another one that overuses a certain technique, causing a bit of von Trier fatigue. Nevertheless, it is only fair to say that the director is eminently skilled.
Having said that, I do think Antichrist goes off the rails and after a strong beginning becomes too random. Stylistically it remains fascinating, but it doesn’t so much bring up motifs and raise themes as throw them against the wall like so much psychosexual spaghetti. Grief! Despair! Pain! Clash of genders! Misogyny! Men are logical, and logic is evil! Women are emotional, and emotion is evil! Nature is evil! Woman is nature! Men can’t cope with women and so burn them! Antichrist flirts with all of these but doesn’t end up doing all that much with any of them. None of it seems to add up to anything much, feeling like window dressing for what is in effect an arthouse slasher movie. For all of the scenes of extreme violence, cruelty and self-harm, I rarely felt particularly involved – nor even all that shocked. When you feel non-plussed rather than anything else at fairly explicit scenes of genital mutilation, you have to wonder what exactly Lars was trying to do.
I imagine that courses on film, gender, violence and Lars von Trier will have a field day with Antichrist, and in fact I might enjoy a discussion about it more than I enjoyed the film itself. In the end, though, I have to wonder whether von Trier, always a consummate trickster, didn’t primarily enjoy the idea of doing a genre film and chose the various thematic overtones more as a game, a puzzle without a solution for the audience to try and solve in vain. It would be interesting to check out the Criterion edition of the film, which seems to be choc-a-bloc with excatly these kinds of discussions by scholars – but while I usually have to be physically kept from ordering yet another Criterion disk, I don’t think I have an urgent need to see Antichrist again, commentary track or not.
I am, however, slightly more curious about Nymphomaniac than I was before, so as an expensive, extended advert for Lars von Trier’s work the film seems to have done its trick. I’m sure his body doubles will appreciate this.
*When I say “unique”, though, I have to relativise that statement – especially at the beginning I did feel I was watching a mashup of David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman’s work, although with more graphic sex than you’d find in either of those.
Lars von Trier is a highly talented artist. He is also a bit of a troll – not due to this Nordic origin but his obvious enjoyment of getting a rise out of people in often obnoxious ways. I’ve found the handful of his films that I’ve watched a mixed bag: at turns intriguing, affecting and annoying, as well as manipulative in ways that are skilled but a little too obvious at times.
Melancholia lacks the impishness of some earlier works of his, except perhaps on an aesthetic level – I’d be surprised if von Trier hadn’t banked on the slo-mo beginning of the film raising a few eyebrows and tempers (and prompting some people to ask for their money back because they felt they’d ended up in Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of Millais’ “Ophelia”). For a von Trier, Melancholia is remarkably sedate, not to say mature (a word I expect the director would not be too happy with). It lacks the borderline sadistic, “Let’s see how far we can take this” showiness of, say, Dogville, but it is no less intriguing for this.
To a fan of the director’s work, does Melancholia feel like a compromise, an appeal to more mainstream audiences? Both von Trier and his fellow European provocateur, Michael Haneke, received praise from the critics’ establishment for their most recent works, yet at least in the case of the former there was a faint note of disappointment: if we can’t trust the vicious jester of cinema to irritate us in inventive ways, who will do it instead? As a non-fan who has rarely felt the visceral annoyance that some people get from von Trier, nor the equally visceral enjoyment that others feel, I found Melancholia intriguing, beautifully acted and absolutely gorgeous to look at. Without going for a conventional aesthetic, von Trier brings an evocative, painterly eye to the film, playing especially effectively with the haunting light the eponymous planet threatening Earth throws on the film’s protagonists and scenery. In terms of cinematic apocalypses, this is one of the more subtly effective ones, evoking an intimate sadness that is miles from von Trier’s sometimes tendency to, well, troll his audience.
P.S.: As far as end-of-the-world movies are concerned, my favourite may still be Don McKellar’s Last Night, a film that couldn’t be much more Canadian if it tried and that gives the wonderful Sandra Oh a blessed chance to shed her hospital duds.
Okay, I’m afraid this is another cross-link with little input from myself – but I thought this was one of the more intriguing film blog entries I’ve seen lately. Have any of you seen Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions? I haven’t… yet. The DVD’s on my shelf, but somehow it hasn’t actually made it into the player so far. In any case, here’s the trailer:
The FilmSchoolRejects site has posted suggestions for ten films (and directors) that von Trier should obstruct, which makes for geeky though fascinating reading. Personally I’m not a big fan of von Trier, but there are some cool ideas in there. And yes, there are a number of directors who should be shaken, kicked and dragged out of their rut – by force, if necessary.