Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The bureau chief saw Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" in 1996 and vowed never to see another of his films. It's the story of a naive and religious woman who decides that she must obey, as an order from God, her paralysed husband's request that she have sex with other men and then describe it to him. She has rougher and rougher sex, with a variety of men, until she's killed. She's a kind of Christian sexual martyr. The description sounds interesting but the experience of watching the film is horrifying. We see a confused and harmless woman being brutalized to death.

None of the reviews of von Trier's subsequent films made me want to see them, until "Melancholia". I'm very glad I did. First, it's beautiful. Back in 1996, von Triers made "Breaking the Waves" following the rules of "Dogme 95" which allowed only handheld camera, only production sound, only music that was played in the actual scene, etc. He's abandoned all that. A lot of the music is Wagner. The camera work is excellent. The central special effect, a planet approaching the Earth, is well done. One thing that hasn't changed is that the casting and the acting are very good.

Melancholia is the name both of the approaching planet and of the depression that afflicts Justine (Kirsten Dunst). You scholars of the Four Humors know that the excess of Black Bile that causes Melancholia also produces an artistic temperament and Justine has one, although she is wasting her talent writing ad campaigns. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is married to John (Kiefer Sutherland). He's very rich and Claire spends her time being a hostess and mother. The first half of the movie is named "Justine" and chronicles the opulent and painfully disastrous wedding party that Claire throws for her sister. The second half is called "Claire" and chronicles the approach of the planet and how the central characters deal with it.

Justine had fallen into an immobilizing depression after the failed wedding but the approach of the planet begins to strengthen her just as Claire becomes weaker and more helpless. In the end Justine manages to create an absurd little piece of art in the face of the final day. I really enjoyed this film and highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Descendants

In the middle 80s, Madame Le Chef and I went on vacation to the Hawaiian island of Maui. A travel agent had found us a very reasonably priced hotel. It turned out the good price was because it was in an unfashionable part of the island near the airport and lacked a sea view. On the other hand it came with a free rental car (we just had to pay for the gas). Think how long ago 26 years is. I've just mentioned two things that barely exist anymore, travel agents and free rental cars.

We used the car to drive all over the island and discovered the same thing that millions of other visitors have. Under the typical American layer of highways, subdivisions and malls Hawaii is a tropical paradise. All those millions of visitors haven't destroyed it. And the locals there are living their quotidian lives, like humans everywhere: loving, working, raising children, growing older, dying. In Alexander Payne's, "The Descendants", George Clooney's narration makes this point, early on, in a way that is perhaps too on the nose, but it's a point worth making.

Of course Clooney's character, Matt King, is not a typical local. He's a member of Hawaii's white ruling class and he, and his enormous extended family, own 25,000 acres of undeveloped land on Kauai. It's going to be sold and it will make everyone in the family very rich. That's just one of the things complicating his life. His wife's in a coma. He's been a mostly absent father but now he has to be the parent of their two girls. There are even more complications that I won't go into.

I haven't been a rabid fan of Alexander Payne's films. I liked "Election" but really disliked "About Schmidt", which I thought was condescending. I liked parts of "Citizen Ruth" and of "Sideways". I think "The Descendants" is his best film. It has a few really funny things in it but digs deeper into the stuff of living than he ever has before. Recommended.