Thursday, December 1, 2011

Crazy Ex-Girlfriends

Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011)
David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (2011)

Both David Cronenberg and Lars von Trier's new movies open on strikingly similar images: actresses expressing in one way or another their mental illnesses. Kirsten Dunst's Justine suffers from chronic depression and her dead, paralyzed eyes open at the beginning of Melancholia. Keira Knightley's Sabina is consumed by some unnamed masochism and we see her pained face flash through a carriage window on the way to a sanatarium at the beginning of A Dangerous Method. As a person that deals with both depression and wedding coordinators on a basis more regular than I'd like, I can attest to von Trier's veracity of depiction of Justine. As a person that would like to deal with actors and actresses on a movie set more frequently than I currently do, I enjoy the relationship that Cronenberg creates with his depiction of Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) and Sabina. I think these movies would make a good double feature.

I describe von Trier's movie philosophy as "Look At It." He's an aggressive director, and it's easy to think that he doesn't like his audience or doesn't care that we are there at all. I do think he cares, but he forces us deal with unambiguous images that some might find anti-artistic or blindly iconoclastic. Charlotte Gainsbourg cutting off her clitoris, say. Hard core penetration in The Idiots. The title of Epidemic stays on the screen for the entire movie. Giant bells are really, actually, truly ringing from heaven at the end of Breaking the Waves. So many other directors would put at least some power of interpretation into the hands of the audience. Michael Haneke, for example, would explicitly not show us the act of violence in order to make it vivid in our imaginations. Fuck that, says von Trier. Look at it. Here, the violence is in Justine's eyes.

So much in Justine's actions dare us to hate her, but so much of Dunst's performance begs us to love her. Who but only the most chronically devastated can empathize with her golf course piss, her infidelity or her destruction of her own wedding. Yet those eyes aren't just dead. They have moments of love and excitement, sympathy and sincerity. I can't help but completely understand Justine when she says goodbye to her horse, Abraham, or hugs little Leo, or even sometimes when she snaps at her sister. And I think this is why Melancholia is the most successful use of von Trier's philosophy yet. He makes us look at and deal with the emotional complexities of his characters rather than a strictly filmic or artistic theory. He's done this before, but never to this degree. The first and last images of Melancholia are perfect partners.

Coupled well, too, are those images of A Dangerous Method. We begin with Sabina's intense mental flagellation and end with Jung's sadness, if you don't count the pointlessly boring epilogue text. Both are a kind of madness. In Justine's eyes, I see a void. Such a void, in fact, that it brings me inside her. Sabina, on the other hand, is so blatantly extroverted that it pushes me away, and pushes me so far that I leave the movie and start thinking about other things, particularly that I hate Keira Knightley's acting. You could call it "Schmacting." As the movie progresses, though, I begin to understand Cronenberg's intent, and I am drawn back in. He often uses visual techniques to compare characters, and Method is no different. In Dead Ringers he used split screen to allow the twins equal space, and here he uses split focus to juxtapose Knightley and Fassbender, the latter so still and warmly colored in blues and greys that his calmness is what is shocking next to her violent, alien-like and contorted face. In that face I see Justine's opposite, but not simply her binary. I dislike Sabina and am continually dared to continue disliking her.

Cronenberg always seemed to me a director interested in the body and its possibilities, but since 2002's Spider his focus has shifted to the mind. It makes perfect sense to me that he would direct a movie about two psychologists. A pet theme of his that is somewhat overlooked, though, is media: how movies effect us, how they get into our psyches and change the way we behave, how we sometimes base our actions not on our true emotions but on tropes we've assimilated from literature, drama, movies, and comics. Method is ostensibly set on the eve of World War I, but cinema and psychoanalysis were born in the same year: 1895. Does that make Frued Lumiere and Jung Melies?  How perfect a match.

As Cronenberg dramatizes it, Jung's relationship with Sabina is that of a director and actress. What got me thinking about this was Knightley's last scene in the film, which is without a doubt her best, and by 'best' I mean least grating and most emotionally rewarding. It was quite a visceral swing from the beginning of the film, when I was disgusted with her alien-faced over-acting. I hated that shit with my bones, but in this context it makes total sense. The actress, an artistic creature, has something inarticulatable to express. The script gives her the ability to speak, and the director gives her the ability to be safe. What does an actor fear most? A bad take. The danger of being revealed as a fake, as the inarticulate mess she fears herself to be. To be exposed as a schmactor. And how dangerous must it be to walk along that precipice, immerse yourself so utterly in a character that your every flaw is exposed, and beyond that to completely entrust those flaws to the director. Few actors have attempted this, and we all know what their style is called.

For this, Knightley is brave. She splays herself all over the screen, and Cronenberg makes us look at it. Over the course of the film, Jung shapes Sabina's life into a good, natural performance. But at the end of the movie, as he and she sit on the banks of Vienna, a new film has already started playing in his head: fountains of blood rushing down the alps. A premonition of something yet to come. And who is his new mistress? Another patient. Another actress. The story of Cronenberg's life, I'm sure.


Shawn said...


Harry said...

Your writing is very easy to read and enjoy my lad. I am yet to watch either, which in itself is shameful, but i am certainly more inclined to watch the former. Does Knightley play Abraham too? It takes a lot for me to like an actor or actress i generally detest, so its unfortunate that every once in a while they get to make a movie with a great director and I am forced to like them. a great piece; nice one son.