Magazine article Artforum International

Heaven's Weight

Magazine article Artforum International

Heaven's Weight

Article excerpt

There were really two melodramas. The first was called Breaking the Waves, a new film by Lars von Trier; it was scheduled to show at Cannes. The second revolved around luring this notoriously phobic director out of Denmark; he was scheduled to show at Cannes, too. But getting him on a plane to fly to the South of France was impossible - planes, he reasoned, are late, crowded, blow up, crash, and have windows that don't open. Planes were out. That left two options: trains and automobiles. Last-minute claustrophobia killed the train idea (more nonopening windows), while the thought of potentially spending hours trapped in European holiday traffic proved too much to bear. In the end, the first melodrama made it to Cannes; the second played only in Denmark. If you ask von Trier, he'll tell you that without his personal Sturm and Drang there would have been no drama for the screen: "Making a film is incredibly hard . . . like a birth trauma, some kind of constriction I have to pass through before I can take any pleasure in it. . . . Breaking the Waves and The Kingdom were a huge pleasure to make. But then a reaction sets in: the phobias . . . which I used to be able to control, are now flourishing like mad."(1)

That's the director's cut, but there were a couple of others floating around as well. One has it that when von Trier realized Breaking the Waves would likely lose the Palme d'Or to Mike Leigh's crowd-pleasing Secrets and Lies (which showed on day two of the festival), he invented all of the foregoing to cover a fit of pique. Another has it that he actually got the Grand Jury Prize instead of the Palme d'Or because his paralyzing fears prevented him from showing up on the Cote d'Azur. It doesn't really matter which version you believe, the point is that people have come to expect this sort of behavior from Denmark's top filmmaker.

For years, von Trier's been billed as an enfant terrible, but this reputation isn't based solely on prima donna behavior: his control-freak impulses and myriad phobias are those of a latter-day auteur who specializes in the kind of films that play around the edges of genre movies. At once coldly formal and just plain creepy, they're marked by such generally unfashionable concerns as moral dilemmas, the role, or lack thereof, of God in day-to-day life, and similarly unanswerable onto-theological questions. The Element of Crime, 1984, a postapocalyptic hard-boiled-detective flick about a child killer on the loose, came first; then Epidemic, 1987, a film within a film centered on disease and the inability (or unwillingness) to cure it; Zentropa, 1991, an existential thriller about post-Nazi German guilt and apparently doomed innocence, followed. After that, he detoured into television, making four episodes of The Kingdom, 1994, a way-weirder-than-Twin Peaks series about a hospital besieged by ghosts that's inexplicably sinking back into the swamp it was built on. Only a Greek chorus of Down's syndrome dishwashers knows exactly what's going on; everybody else is reduced to searching for answers by way of seances and conspiracies, contributing to the general odor of decay by leaving severed body parts lying around and hiring others to procure voodoo potions, or just burying their administrative heads in the fetid ground and calling it "Operation Fresh Air." If there's one thing yon Trier has faith in it's the irrational as a productive force.

Von Trier's bleak worldview is mirrored by recurrent formal devices: his movies all come out looking like they've been bleached or dunked in acid or just left out in the sun for too long - like they've ripened and begun to rot. Gauzy, decay-colored footage turns the televisual Kingdom into a pseudo-verite meditation on hidden corruption. Epidemic oscillates between mock-documentary, corroded-looking 16 mm (to represent the world of those making the film within a film) and "artistic," high-quality 35 mm black and white (for the plague-shattered world they create). …

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