Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
That naughty scamp Lars von Trier is back in the game, with his scandalous new film The House That Jack Built prompting a certain amount of hand-wringing at film festivals earlier this year (not easy to do, with a crowded field of provocateurs out there), and occupying the screen at the Grand Illusion for a second weekend just now.
I haven’t seen von Trier’s reportedly bloody account of a serial killer (Matt Dillon) plying his trade, but I hope to soon. I sympathize with anyone who finds the director’s bad-boy persona tiresome, but I continue to think that von Trier’s stage-managed image is separate from the things he actually puts into his films; it’s in his art that his seriousness of purpose comes out, something he doesn’t seem inclined to disclose while acting like a jackass in interviews. We live in a time when people (and too many film critics) find it easier to review the artist than the art, so this complicates the reception of von Trier’s movies. But I’m still interested.
A few years ago, I threw a lot of my writing about von Trier into a blog post; it includes an introduction I wrote for an online site (maybe the old, original Film.com) that looked at LVT’s career up to that point. Here’s that longish post.
And, more recently, a piece from the Herald on the 2011 Melancholia, one of the director’s best:
If Melancholia hadn’t turned out to be one of the most arresting and exciting movies of the year, the film’s main claim to fame might’ve been director Lars von Trier’s joking comments at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Von Trier is a full-time mischief-maker and put-on artist, who blabbed something at the Melancholia press conference about sympathizing with Hitler (the implication being, what movie director doesn’t identify with a tyrannical dictator, at some point?). Of course this comment became an immediate scandal, and von Trier was banned from the festival, and blah blah blah.
So, yes, Lars von Trier can be a jackass at times. He also happens to be a prodigiously talented artist who makes movies nobody else could make, Melancholia being a vivid case in point.
The film is divided into two parts: The first surveys a fancy wedding reception at a country house, where the bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), appears to be slowly and surely losing it. This part is a black comedy of manners. The second section also is set at the house, shortly thereafter, when the clinically depressed Justine returns to stay with her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg, late of von Trier’s Antichrist) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland).
But we left out something important. The movie begins with a spellbinding set of slow-motion images, which appear to herald a natural catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. After that, there are references to an asteroid, or possibly a planet, that is on a collision course with Earth. From this setting, von Trier weaves an ominous experience, part psychological study, part science fiction. And it is an “experience,” more than it is a conventional three-act movie: Melancholia moves at its own very odd, elongated stride, like someone trying to walk underwater, and it presents images that vary from the curious (the bride pauses to relieve herself on a golf course at night) to the spectacular (a horse keels over beneath a sky full of northern lights).
Kristen Dunst won the best actress prize at Cannes, and she’s very convincingly haunted. Alexander Skarsgard plays her groom, and Charlotte Rampling and Udo Kier contribute deft humor in the movie’s wickedly funny first section.
The actors are all part of von Trier’s conception, which includes lush samplings of Richard Wagner music. Melancholia is the kind of movie that used to settle into a nice long arthouse run, drawing audiences interested in tripping on its imagery or deciphering its puzzle. I hope that happens here, because this is bold, tightrope-walking movie-making of the most vertiginous kind.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.