My review of Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA: depression is a glowing blue planet

{Below is the text of the spoken review}

I want to like the films of Lars Von Trier more than I do. I admire that he has a singular vision, and that he has the audacity to disturb his audience. His work is difficult and he explores the darkest reaches of the human experience. But there is always something about his work that irritates me, that stops me from fully embracing his work.

I saw MELANCHOLIA last night. It’s an intensely personal meditation on Depression and self destruction. Justine’s descent into a depression is beautifully realized, and I would tell anyone who doesn’t believe Depression is a genuine medical condition to look at the first part of the film. The actress Kirsten Dunst portrays Justine’s pain as physical (which Depression can be) as well as mental. Her face mimics joy, but she’s really a husk inside, a tangle of psychic scars. The second part of the movie, about the destruction of the earth, isn’t as strong. Firstly, because the narrative shifts its focus from Justine to her sister Claire. The scenes that show Justine’s reactions are more powerful. She seems to embrace the end of the world. There’s a scene where she bathes naked in the spectral blue glow of the planet Melancholia that is just gorgeous.

The second part of the movie also has all of the features that annoy me about Von Trier’s work. His characters act in ways that don’t make sense. When Kiefer Sutherland’s character kills himself, it comes out of left-field. This sudden out of character behavior is a hallmark of his films. In DANCER IN THE DARK, Selma murders a man—out of left field. In DOGVILLE, Nicole Kidman’s character goes from being unbelievably passive (getting raped by an entire village!!!!) to committing genocide. The writer in me sees that as lazy, if not bad writing. Mood whiplash is one thing. Character arc whiplash is another.

To me, MELANCHOLIA is half of a masterpiece. He should really hire a script doctor (me!) for his next outing.

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REVIEW: Downton Abbey directed by Lars von Trier–Killing Violets (or God’s Dogs) by Tanith Lee.

Killing Violets: Gods' DogsKilling Violets: Gods’ Dogs by Tanith Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Certain works of art are meant to be disquieting and disturbing. I think of the work of film-makers like David Lynch or Lars Von Trier, or the paintings of Francis Bacon or the music of Siouxsie And The Banshees. Classical music that incorporates dissonance into their sounds, like some of Stravinsky or artists that include menstrual blood or urine in their work. The diamond-encrusted skulls of Damian Hirst…. The list can go on. At it’s worst, such works of art feel like they are chores to get through; I am not fond, for example, of the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror films and some Goth/Emo music that is dark for the sake of being dark is tedious. At its best, though, disturbing art can be illuminating, cathartic and empowering. Think of Octavia Butler’s bleak futures or the blistering satire of Herzog’s film Even Dwarves Started Small.

Tanith Lee’s short novel, Killing Violets (subtitled God’s Dogs) is one of her most disturbing works. It has the raw, unadulterated atmosphere as a Von Trier film. Plot-wise, it has “break the beauty” as a major trope. Certainly, Lee has explored this theme before in many of her works. What makes Killing Violets different is it set in the recent historical past (1934) and is a realistic novel.

The novel opens with a lost, fragile woman named Anna starving to death in some small European town. She is picked up by a man, Raoul, who dashingly brings her out of the rain and gives her food and shelter at his hotel. He also initiates a sexual relationship with her, and lures her to England and his obscure aristocratic family’s vast estate. Once there, Anna notices that the Basultes are horrible people, who play complex power games with their servants. The Basulte men, in particular, delight abusing the female servants. Realizing this, Anna attempts to escape, but is captured, and, as a punishment, demoted from love interest to scullery maid. Anna’s tragic past in an unnamed small town (it seems vaguely Hungarian) is interspersed throughout these horrific stories, like a dreamy fable.

Like Selma in Von Trier’s Dancer In the Dark, Anna is an innocent, a shattered, vulnerable soul who is forced to suffer for no reason. And like many Von Trier heroines, she also has dark secrets of her own, and can assert her atavistic power when she has to. Like many Lee characters, Anna mostly lives in her head, and is aloof and allusive, sometimes maddeningly so. In that way, she reminds one of Blanche DuBois—stubbornly clinging to illusions of the past at the expense of her sanity.

Killing Violets is beautifully written, with a blurred water-color touch to the imagery. Love and passion is at the center of novel, but it is a horror novel in way, with the brutish, rigid class caste British system rather than the supernatural as the thing that terrifies. Indeed, some of the scenes recall the elegant cruelty depicted in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films. The title’s meaning becomes brilliantly clear in the tragic third act.

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