"Do you remember the Jiminy Cricket song at the end of the Disney Christmas special? At one point, a deer wanders in to listen and behind the deer's ear a rabbit pokes out its head. That's roughly the zone this film operates in," Lars von Trier says.
"When the Earth is ready to crumble between our fingers, whatever we do in the way of heroic conquests or petty family squabbles doesn't matter."
The director's "Antichrist" hit theatres only a couple of years ago and its graphic images of small children falling out of windows and female genitalia being scissored off are still burnt into our retinas. And now von Trier, the enfant très terrible of European cinema, claims that his new film "Melancholia" is like those perversely cute Disney animals? That's almost more disturbing to imagine than the slow-motion shot of a boy falling towards death or Charlotte Gainsbourg 's mutilated genitals in "Antichrist". Thankfully, he quickly shatters that impression, adding, "But the world will end even for the little rabbit and that annoying cricket."
DOING PRETTY WELL
That's more like it. Now von Trier is back in familiar territory. That is, in a place where we almost feel that we have a handle on him. Full of disturbing stories and diabolical wit, with a unique gift for making sense of madness. Personally, however, von Trier is very uncertain about whether it's the right place. "I'm writing a director's statement on Melancholia, and I thought I'd write a negative one that highlights the film's weak points. I feel called to do it. I may have made a film I don't like." With practically any other filmmaker in the world, those words would sound disturbing, even sad. But not in his case. The words are precisely as ambiguous and self-contradicting as they ought to be when they are coming from von Trier. Obviously, it's not good that he has made a film he may not like, but in his case it doesn't matter so much. Especially because, however dubious, his enthusiasm for "Melancholia" is obvious and abundant.
The 55-year-old director appears to be in fine form as he greets me in his personal Fuhrer bunker in Filmbyen, the Danish "Film Town" that occupies a former military base in Avedøre near Copenhagen. He's accommodating and answers every question amiably, even the bad ones, blurting out that he's "actually doing pretty well." He's quit drinking, he says, and now has more time to read, authors like Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann. The impression is a far cry from the sickly, bloated patient with the wavering, unsteady gaze who presented "Antichrist" two years ago at Cannes. It's hard to understand that this small, cautious man is the same director whose films make critics go ballistic, especially in the US and the UK. But, considering that he has the surplus of humour to undermine his own film in a piece of PR writing, he would appear to be in a pretty good place right now.
"Melancholia". Photo: Christian Geisnæs.
"They showed me a mock-up of a poster and some stills and a trailer for "Melancholia", and I went, 'I don't know this film. ' 'But this is the one you made. ' 'I certainly hope not, ' I said. It consists of a lot of over-the-top clichés and an aesthetic that I would distance myself from under any other circumstances. I hope that under all of that, a film is hiding that I actually have some love for. It reminds me of those Luchino Visconti films I always enjoyed that were like whipped cream on top of whipped cream. I went overboard, blasting Richard Wagner. I made the film with a pure heart and I couldn't have done it better, and everyone did a good job. But when I see clips from it, I think, 'I'd be damned. That was unpleasant. ' I'm usually madly in love with everything I do. I 'm probably the most self-satisfied director you'll ever meet. But this film is perilously close to the aesthetic of American mainstream films. The only redeeming factor about it, you might say, is that the world ends."
NOT ABOUT THE END OF THE WORLD
According to the director's own PR department, he has made "a beautiful film about the end of the world", which sure sounds very von Trier-esque in its ambiguity. But just as von Trier-esquely, he rejects his company's tagline. He does not consider "Melancholia" to be about the end of the world and the human race but about humans acting and reacting under pressure. The idea for the film emerged while he was in treatment for the depression that has haunted him in recent years. A therapist told him a theory that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while “ordinary, happy" people are more apt to panic. Melancholics are ready for it. They already know everything is going to hell.
That notion grew into the story of two sisters who react very differently to the news that the planet Melancholia, which had been hiding behind the sun, is hurtling through the Solar System on a collision course with Earth. One of the sisters, played by American actress Kirsten Dunst, is celebrating her wedding in lavish style at a luxurious castle when Melancholia appears in the night sky, throwing humanity and the two sisters' relationship for a loop. Most astrophysicists would probably reject the idea of a planet suddenly tearing itself loose from its orbit and barrelling straight across the Solar System, but to the director who once used a chalk-lined floor as a set for his films "Dogville" and "Manderlay", such fussy objections are irrelevant. The wonders of the human psyche during a disaster, not the laws of nature, are put under the microscope in "Melancholia".
"I like it when things are sharply contrasted. That's why I like juxtaposing all the silly details with the end of the world. When the Earth is ready to crumble between our fingers, whatever we do in the way of heroic conquests or petty family squabbles doesn't matter."
COLF COURSES AND GRAVEYARDS
That's as close as von Trier will go to discussing the plot of "Melancholia". He will reveal, though, that a large part of the film takes place on a golf course.
"I steal everything from other films and I stole that idea from Michelangelo Antonioni's "La Notte", which is also set on a golf course. There's something oddly melancholy about golf courses. They go on forever and, if you take away all the golfers – and you won't find a single one here – they're amazingly cultivated landscapes. I always loved golf courses and graveyards."
"Melancholia"'s aesthetic is another subject dear to von Trier's heart. More than anything, it's the film's aesthetic that makes him unsure about whether he even likes his film.
"Marcel Proust's 'In Search of Lost Time' has a 30-page discussion of what is the greatest work of art of all time. Proust reaches the conclusion that it's the overture to Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde', so that's what we pour all over this film, pushing it for all it's got. I haven't used so much music in a film since 'The Element of Crime' (from 1984, ed.), but here we wallow in it. It's kind of fun, actually. For years, there has been this sort of unofficial film dogma not to cut to the music. Don't cut on the beat. It's considered crass and vulgar. But that's just what we do in 'Melancholia'. When the horns come in and out in Wagner's overture, we cut right on the beat. It's kind of like a music video that way. It's supposed to be vulgar. That was our declared intention. It's one of the most pleasurable things I've done in a long time. I didn't have to force it out, like in 'Antichrist', not at all. Cutting on the beat is pleasurable.
"When my mother was on her deathbed, I found out that I wasn't a Trier after all but came from a German family. I always found Nietzsche interesting and now I'm reading Thomas Mann. The Germans have always influenced me. At one point, I was tapped to direct Wagner's 'Ring' cycle in Bayreuth, but it turned out that they didn't have the money for it anyway, because I was far too ambitious. I have always flirted a bit with the good Herr Wagner, and in 'Antichrist' we inched towards a kind of German Romantic painting. Indeed, sturm und drang and everything that followed."
Among everything that followed the composer Richard Wagner and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as we know, was an anti-Semitic Austrian with an enthusiasm for Teutonic High Romanticism and a heavy-handed beat.
DRAG OUT THE UNEASE
"Yes, the Nazis certainly cut on the beat. They didn't pussyfoot around. I've always had a weakness for the Nazi aesthetic. A Stuka will outlive a British Spitfire in our consciousness by millennia. That's my point of view. While a Spitfire has all those rounded forms and was a very beautiful airplane, the Stuka was a revelation. A lot of Nazi design was amazing. They had such big thoughts. The Stuka was a dive-bomber that swooped down and dropped its bombs with great precision. A special feature about the Stuka was that its bombs were equipped with a little whistle, which is staggeringly cynical but also a sign of artistic surplus. Someone was thinking, 'How can we make this bomb even worse than it already is?' The whistles were supposed to erode the enemy's morale. The sound of that whistle was so scary. I was talking with some Danish elite soldiers who told me that when you're attacking a group of people, let's say in Afghanistan, you send the first two shots into the abdominal area of those in front. It's extremely painful to be shot in the stomach. So the ones who are hit in the stomach start screaming, and when they do, the others get scared and lose their concentration. If they had been shot in the head, they would just fall down. There's this rule to aim the first two shots at the abdomen and the rest at the head."
Though von Trier is definitely on the outer rim of "Melancholia"'s universe in his musings on Nazi design and cynicism, it's hard not to apply those thoughts to his films. Might it not reasonably be claimed that the director shoots his audience in the belly by revealing that "Antichrist" is about Satan ruling the Earth and that the Earth goes under in "Melancholia", making us, the audience, nervous and uneasy, and hence easy to hit in the head?
"I don't know about that. But, true, it is a principle that I like to follow. Such principles greatly appeal to me. I've done unpleasant scenes before, including in 'Dancer in the Dark', when Björk is going to be hanged. There, we used the lesson I've learned from all kinds of American films, that, as soon as an unpleasant event is announced, the unease should be dragged out endlessly. In 'Melancholia' it's dragged throughout the entire film, because we know the world is going to end. And it does, in the last frame. So the audience has to be patient. While disaster films generally take place in the creepiest locations, sewers and worse, this story is set in a wonderful castle. I always hated fairytales, because they had to take place at a wonderful castle. Locations have always had to be these sort of mental images in fairytales, and in this film they most definitely are. It's a kind of fairytale setting, but I certainly hope there's some reality underlying it."
NEXT FILM NAUGHTIER
Fairytale castles, Disney and golf courses? Hardly classic von Trier themes – unlike the Nazis and other extreme worldviews. But maybe that's why they fit so well into the director's universe. He was always drawn to that which repels him, notably the clichés of art. He's not just trying to poke the audience and pique us with his films, he's also trying to poke himself. That's a requirement. As he concludes, in a voice rich with perverse joy and sober vexation alike, "'Melancholia' is the least naughty film I ever did. No clitorises are cut off – which might, then, be called empty gestures."
Has he made a mainstream film at last?
"Well, you could say that. But it's not based on any desire to make a mainstream film. Really, I should be the last person to judge how an audience will perceive a film. When we made 'Epidemic' (in 1987, ed.), we were so sure the points would be rolling into our bank accounts. But how many people saw it on the opening weekend – maybe 137? I couldn't say anything about a film's appeal to a mainstream audience."
At any rate, it makes good sense to do a whipped cream mainstream film about the end of the world. A raw, experimental art film about the end of the world would more or less neutralise itself and make for a predictable and uninteresting statement.
"Luckily, I tend to react to myself, so I hope the next film will be naughtier," von Trier says. By all indications it will.
"I have splendid plans for a highly erotic film, because my DP on this film, Manuel Claro, at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into – that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That's all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. I'm warming up to an ambitious project called 'Nymphomaniac'. I realise that nymphomania is not a politically correct diagnosis and I know that the validity of the title alone will be contested. But if I do a film called 'Nymphomaniac', and it's nice, I'll quit".
Per Juul Carlsen is a film critic on Danish public radio.