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Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Swimmer

The Swimmer posterSynopsis

Made in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster as the swimmer.  He proposes to get back home by swimming through each of the swimming pools on the way there.  He starts off optimistically surrounded by successful and seemingly friendly people  As he progresses the high summer gets autumnal.  The swimming pool hosts start from the friendly (one is hostile early in the film) to the snobby, then hostile and contemptuous.  He ends up back at his own house and everything is very different.

Criticism

One of the stars of this film is the swimming pool, the symbol of American affluence and self confidence.  In The Graduate it started as a symbol of Ben’s success, and ends up like bath water lapping his self pity.  In The Swimmer the pools are expensively cleaned, at the end he swims through eye burning chlorine.

Based on a story by John Cheever, it’s a tautly acted and written parable which packs a few morals depending on your interpretation.  Lancaster starts out as an enviable example of the American Dream.  He appears rich and successful and has two daughters and a wife.  His friends are as successful as he is and all is affluent and joyful. The first upset comes at the third pool where he is dismissed by a bitter tirade railing against Lancaster’s snubbing of a dying acquaintance.  We overhear elderly nativists  gossip about Lancaster’s problems and we know there’s something wrong.  Then he meets a young blonde admirer who refuses to satisfy his vanity by turning her childhood crush into a relationship and she is no longer the wholesome innocent she appears to be.  He then comes across a garden party where he is snubbed and learns that his wife sold a treasured possession behind his back.  Then he gets to a former lover who is very bitter with his status-seeking regard and she rebuffs him and tells him he is an inadequate.  Then he gets into a public swimming pool crowded with people.  There he is told about his family’s attitude towards him and he ends up in rain and squalor.

At first among the rich and successful, Lancaster is genuinely positive and thinks the best of people in a Panglossian way, as if everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  For me, this is a jarring note in the story, in spite of Lancaster’s smugness he is also keen to spread happiness. Whatever his misdemeanours, you feel that he is a not an entirely unsympathetic person (unless you read this as a parable about US imperialism).  Even when his bitter ex-lover rejects him, she is ready to help him back to his house.  Lancaster’s character is brittle and proud and his progress through the pools is objectively monitored by seasonal deterioration.  Are the characters at the end too harsh with him?  It depends on the interpretation you give it.  Lancaster’s acting throughout is gripping.  You could read this film as a parable about growing up or about America’s supposed loss of innocence after the Kennedy assassination and about Vietnam.  This film also has the feeling of a nice dream journey into a nightmare.  As he walks away from the garden party the guests line up to see him off.  In the countryside we see the reliable old standby of cinematic dream symbolism: the horse galloping free.

This is a sixties film so it features that other stereotype of that decade: the embittered alcoholic wife/mistress.  At the start the characters talk like Stepford alpha men and women.  People say what’s required of them to sustain the facile optimism of money and high status.  At the end people are cynical and bitter but in a very literal minded way.  The story should evince hope even in the squalid circumstances of comparative poverty but it doesn’t do this.  I think it would be a better film if the moral possibilities in the story had been pursued.  Among the truth telling cynics, Lancaster has the opportunity to get through guilt and remorse to achieve some kind of expiation but it doesn’t happen.  We see a sinister squalor at the end but we don’t know the extent of his culpability.  Those victims of his arrogance achieve vengeance, and like them the film gloats over this person stripped of allusions shown to be living in lies.  The film’s mercilessly non redemptive end is very bleak.  A dark but absorbing film.

 

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Melancholia

Melancholia posterSynopsis

The film is about a visiting planet which smashes into Earth.  It starts at a wedding at a rich country house.  Kirsten Dunst is Justine the bride and her sister Claire is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  John Hurt plays her father and Charlotte Rampling her mother.  Rampling embarrasses bride and guests with her contrariness.  Then it’s Dunst’s turn to be difficult and it turns out that she is depressive.  She goes out on to the lawn and has sex with her father in law’s employee.  She is contemptuous towards her father in law’s advertizing work.  Gainsbourg tries to manage Dunst’s outbursts. They wait for catastrophe.

Criticism

This shares some obvious similarities with his last work, Antichrist, and even with the Tree of Life – we get cosmic visions, the visiting planet is blue green and huge.  I’m inclined to think this film should be called ‘Tree of Pisstskes’.  In Antichrist we get gloomy names for stars and planets:  we had ‘Grief’, ‘Despair’, and ‘Pain’ as names for constellations, and in Melancholia, well the visiting planet is called ‘Melancholia’.  Mercifully there is no talking fox in Melancholia and nobody mutilates their genitals.  One of von Trier’s major concerns is the conflict between controlling male rationality and feminine mysticism and instinct.  In Melancholia Kirsten Dunst is the rebellious spirit who upsets the bourgeoise proprieties of the wedding feast.  Here von Triers must acknowledge Bunuel’s influence, as John Hurt insults the guests and Rampling speaks as she embitteredly finds.

Throughout the film, we stay at this country house so the people in it face the end of the world cut off from the rest of the world.  Dunst’s character is mentally ill at first.  She is impulsive and scorns her father in law’s materialism.  At the end of the film she gains composure in the face of catastrophe.  Gainsbourg’s character starts out by being level-headed, looking after her mentally ill sister but when she finds out that the huge planet will smash into Earth then she goes to pieces (like the rest of us, naturally!).  Her pompously rational husband is found dead in the stable, did Gainsbourg kill him as she learns that his science did not save the world?  Dunst tells her sister that the world is evil and this continues the gnostic view of nature we get in Antichrist.

Like in other arty sci-fi films (like Solaris) we get famous paintings on walls or in art books.  Indeed this film reminds me a little of Solaris, the impact of space in its awful unknowability on human emotions.  The ponderings on fate and our cosmic isolation and loneliness.  There is a pre-Raphaelite feel to Dunst’s being immersed in dreamy light and snowfalls of blossoms like the forest in Antichrist.  We get winter landscapes from Brueghel suggestive of the impending devastation.

Von Trier’s is a very different sort of disaster film from the usual American kind.  There are no heroes to save everybody, there is no urban disintegration, just hanging on in desperation as the awful impact approaches.  Antichrist ended in violence and ritual and so does this film.  The huge planet (20 times earth’s size) billows up to fill the screen as Dunst, Gainsbourg and the child sit in a tent of boughs.  Here nature on earth is not riddled with menace, everything destructive is invested in the visiting giant.  Women control this film, men are disposable clowns.  A Lars von Trier’s joke, and a well acted cosmic tragedy.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Antichrist

Antichrist posterSynopsis

A couple called He and She make love soundtracked by Handel whilst their child climbs out of his cot to fall to his death from an open window.  He (Dafoe) is a therapist who tries to help Her (Gainsbourg) in her grief.  They go to ‘Eden’ in the countryside in a forest.  She describes a sort of dream vision of her walking through a ghosterized forest.  They are assaulted by falling acorns, there’s a talking fox, a pregnant deer, a mad jackdaw, human body parts in trees.  She is into the study of ‘gynocide’ about the male war on women and how male imputed evil is actually the evil of nature, which is Satan’s theatre.  She gets increasingly wild, bolts Dafoe’s leg with a screw clamp, bashes him with a spade, cuts off her clitoris.  He kills her and comes across a crowd of forest pilgrims walking past him, once again that Handel song.

Criticism

Initially I was ready to slag this off.  The whole thing looks like a pretentious scam, a non film with do-it-yourself symbolism devised by a prankster contemptuous of his audience..  The film looks like Equus as written by Steven King or D.H. Lawrence as a Halloween stunt.  Is it satire on torture porn?  If so, I wanted to dismiss it as fake satire because it’s complicit in the vileness it ridicules.  The relationship between He and She is partlly intellectualized and partly magazine supplement mystical.  Occasionally they are pithy and their eroticism electrifies their corny forays into B horror movie concerns:  feminist witchcraft, demonology, astrology (constellations are ‘Grief’, ‘Despair’, and ‘Pain’).  Gainsbourg doesn’t have the technique to convey true menace or dark passions, she comes over all RADA trained and squeaky, like a convent-educated debutante self consciously screaming Lawrentian lust in the bathroom.  The talking fox is silly and made me think of Basil Brush.  The violence is sickening.  At Cannes Lars von Trier no doubt enjoyed the publicity that predictable condemnation brought.  Is this a film at all?  Is it a series of happenings from the depressive mind of a mentally ill-film maker?

After saying all this, I have come to think this is an outstanding film.  It’s like a narrative from a romantic author discovering nature after the buttoned up Rococo era.  One critic compared it to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, but I think Christabel would be more apt.  Its depiction of nature is like the forest in Company of Wolves or the witchiness of Blair Witch Project and the menace of The Village.  In this nature humanity is at least a mysterious and threatening presence.  Nature is here on its own terms as a bloody and chaotic wilderness.  The forest is menacing like in a Grimm fairy tale without von Trier having to rely on the tired tricks of mainstream cinema.  It’s do it yourself symbolism, and the fun comes from the boundary between image and symbol, they each seem to merge then separate.  Occasionally the film weakens into the self consciousness that comments on what doesn’t need commentary.  As for the accusation of unfair treatment of women,  I disagree in this film.  In Antichrist Gainsbourg is a martyr to her nature, mysticism sanctioned by feminist rebellion against the academic arrogance of her husband.  What Gainsbourg does is to herself, she suffers from a grief that her husband can distance himself from, alienated by his smug attempts at closure.  As for the black and white sex scenes and the accidental death of the child, I think von Trier is parodying the cinematic urge to choreograph life’s horrors and it’s banalities.  Look at those pompous shower scenes Will Smith gets into.

This film for me is more a thinking person’s Steven King:  the remote forest farmhouse is not a place to escape to but a sort of terror of truth seeking.  The forest house offers a violent redemption in self hate and self sacrifice: a rejection of the false security of their urban life.  Fighting with the devil guarantees spiritual honesty better than deluding ourselves with the unacknowledged seeking for power over others that we often sanctify as love and the search for spirituality.

The film is undoubtedly derivative so there’s fun in searching for influences.  There’s Arthur Rackham’s nature vision in those limb sprouting trees, though at first it reminded me of a skin cream commercial.  The falling storm of acorns is like Pan’s Labyrinth.  Scandinavian love of forests turns up in Bergman and Elvira Madigan.  Von Trier depicts not Eden but a failed human attempt to realize it in spite of our sin and guilt.  No one seems concerned about the title, what exactly is the Antichrist?  For Nietsche it’s not satanism but the will power set against the bad faith of religious belittlements.  It’s a celebration of vitality against the self deluding power seeking of religious self denial.  Guilt v blame feed off each other in Antichrist like parts of the forest (natural forces), and so are not religious at all but devouring energies.  Von Trier celebrates the amoral vitality of women freed from male control, their subversive energy is potentially anti-Christian.  We see subliminal shots of a face passing through the greenery then Gainsbourg lies down on the grass and becomes green like the earth, and I think of people archetypically totemized as halloween forest creatures.  The animalization of the male is a lurid phallus spurting blood.  Gainsbourg becomes the spirit of animism fusing with the spirits of the forest against the corrupt fallen rationality of the male psychiatrist.  Trier himself is I think a convert to Catholicism so he will doubtless think that original sin is a domestic problem which we enact in any attempted Eden.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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