(On DVD, September 2016) There are many reasons that would explain me hating Dogville. It’s almost ludicrously long. It’s got an extremely pessimistic view of human nature. It plays games with the notion of traditional filmmaking by simplifying the sets to a chalk outline … wait, that’s actually something I like about the movie. In fact, it’s probably the reason why I feel curiously positive about it. From the very first shot, in which an entire small town is depicted as chalk outlines on a theatre stage and characters act against minimal props meant to symbolize their surroundings, Dogville goes meta even as it presents a story that doesn’t rely all that much on this abstraction. It’s fascinating for a few minutes, then intermittently interesting as the movie occasionally tries to use this limitation to work around conventional sequences. There is a lot of narration, some of it intrusive in the manner of a classic novel. Various high-profile actors (notably Nicole Kidman, who plays a punching back for half the film, but also Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård and narrator John Hurt) are puppets in writer/director Lars von Trier’s hands as he presents a lengthy and cynical take on human nature, filled with ordinary townspeople turning abusive toward a designated victim. It’s horrifying to the point where the violent take-no-prisoners finale feels satisfying to a ghoulish degree. While not appealing to the angels of our better nature, Dogville does earn a few points for style … even though this may not be a film to be watched a second time.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) I’m reasonably sure I disliked Dancer in the Dark, but it does have a few interesting things going for it. I’m not normally a fan of writer/director Lars von Trier, and the first thirty-some minutes of this film feature his worst tendencies: Muddy naturalistic cinematography (filmed on early-generation digital cameras), tepid pacing, depressing characters in even more depressing situations… This example being set, it would be easy to figure that the rest of the film would just as unbearable. But then, a full musical number happens! That’s when Dancer in the Dark becomes interesting, clashing between the slick expectations of a musical number with the naturalistic low-fi style of an independent drama. It’s a remarkable effect, and it does much to make the film interesting despite its worst characteristics. The rest of the film arguably gets better and worse: On the plus side, there’s a murder, more musical numbers and an exceptionally unusual conclusion. On the minus side, everything drags on much longer than it should and the melodrama gets ridiculous to the point where even the depressing conclusion feels like unintentional comedy. (Thematic critique of the United States? Oh boy.) I’d shorten the last hour considerably, but unfortunately that may mean losing the pretty good courtroom dance number. Bjork feels like a special effect of her own, singing her numbers, holding her own in acting scenes and, of course, looking innocently cute throughout. So, what to make of Dancer in the Dark? I’m favouring mild dislike, even despite a fondness for conceptual daring. But I don’t know, really.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Melancholia, but I expected it to be interesting. “Dogme 95” director Lars von Trier isn’t usually associated with science-fiction or special effects, so seeing him handle a spectacular end-of-the-world disaster film had its own particular fascination. There’s little in Melancholia that’s conventional, of course: it opens with a series of exquisitely photographed slow-motion portraits expressing the film that will follow. Then we’re boldly thrown into an hour-long dramatic first section that seldom even acknowledges the ultimate science-fictional aims of the film. This first hour is all about a young woman getting married and causing/suffering the worst day of her life. The key to Melancholia is the idea that depressed people cope well with apocalyptic situations. After that, the dramatic dynamics of second half of the film, describing in an intimate setting the reaction to impending disaster, makes perfect sense: The depressive is unaffected, the rational shatters under stress, the normal retreats into shock and the innocent isn’t aware of what’s going on. It may be a frustratingly slow film, but it’s more than occasionally beautiful in its own way, and it forces actors such as Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland to show some real acting capabilities. (Particularly Dunst, too-often dismissed in more superficial roles.) For SF fans, it’s fascinating to see how carefully von Trier limits his scope: isolated location, four characters, scientific jargon that acknowledges the hard-science behind the scenario while using it for more fanciful purposes. It’s also a revealing take on material that would be treated far differently in a pure-genre film. Best seen on a small screen with plenty of distractions on-hand (it is a rather slow-paced film, and often skips over connective material), Melancholia nonetheless has its own languid appeal, a cozy catastrophe brought to the screen and an intimate exploration of a subject that, handled more conventionally, would seem downright ordinary.