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Collision Course: Director Lars von Trier on His End-of-the-World Drama, Melancholia

Though Lars von Trier’s mouth gets him into trouble, the Dane’s incredible storytelling talents are well under control. MELANCHOLIA, his latest, is a masterfully beguiling tale of sisters, depression and the end of the world. 

You’ve got to hand it to Lars von Trier. In an era when art-film auteurs get about as much mainstream media recognition as the guy who does your dry cleaning, he’s managed to keep up an incredibly public profile. Then again, while it’s said that all publicity is good publicity, von Trier’s track record makes one wonder. He’s been branded a Nazi-sympathizing (Cannes, 2011) delusional egomaniac (Cannes, 2009), whose works mark him as a misogynist (Antichrist) and spurred an appalling murderous rampage (Anders Breivik’s in Norway). Soon, von Trier will most likely be attacked for being a pornographer (he is in pre-production on Nymphomaniac, which will feature hardcore sex; the director, reluctantly, says he will bow to commercial concerns by releasing a soft-core version as well). Indeed, there hasn’t been a Dane this vilified since King Claudius.


But the funny thing about the brouhahas von Trier creates is that they seem to always divert attention away from one thing: his filmmaking. Well, except for one instance — at the 2009 Cannes press conference for Antichrist, von Trier stated (in tongue-in-cheek fashion), “I am the best film director in the world.”

Such self-praise may seem ludicrous, but let’s face facts: von Trier must come up in any comprehensive discussion of the best filmmakers working today. One could argue compellingly that between the neo-Brechtian formalism of Dogville and Manderlay, the aesthetic asceticism explored in The Five Obstructions, and the wildly expressionistic emotional portraits of Antichrist and Melancholia, no filmmaker has moved the football of cinema farther downfield in the past decade than Lars von Trier.

Perhaps with the release of his latest film, Melancholia, the record will be set straight. Melancholia is a film in two sections, revolving around two sisters who rely on each other during two tragedies. In the first half, a woman suffering from depression, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), leans on her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), for support as Justine realizes, at her wedding, that she does not love her husband. In the second half, Claire comes to rely on Justine for support, in a fashion, as both of them realize Earth may soon be destroyed by a newly discovered planet, aptly named Melancholia. By equating personal depression with the literal end of the world, von Trier has created an explosive portrait of emotional suffering and earned himself some of the most positive reviews of his career. Many predicted the film would win the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But then there was that disastrous press conference…

I had the pleasure of speaking with von Trier over Skype recently. Magnolia Pictures opens the film in November.

I learned recently that the Norway shooter, Anders Breivik, was a big fan of Dogville. And I was thinking about the reaction to your comments in Cannes. Do you have thoughts on why you and your work are so often misinterpreted? [Pause, laughs] No. If there was any inspiration in Dogville for what happened [in Norway], that’s terrible. We have followed the events in Norway very closely here [in Denmark] and it’s been a nightmare scenario there. It’s obvious to think of some parallels to the last scene in Dogville, but the evilness of this thing in Norway is striking. To stand among children that you shoot face to face for an hour — I’m sure a lot of terrible things happen around the world, but it’s just kind of completely unbelievable. I had to react to the news that Dogville was on [Breivik’s] profile…. I had to make a comment. [von Trier was quoted in the Danish paper Politiken as saying, “If it was an inspiration, I’m sorry that I made it. I feel badly about thinking that Dogville, which in my eyes is one of my most successful films, should have been a kind of script for him.”] You know, there are some friends that you don’t want — like the Iranian cultural minister, who was suddenly a friend in Cannes. That is not at all what I want to represent. And, of course, the films can be interpreted in very many ways. They are not completely clear and often they represent a schism. Dogville ends with a big revenge. For me, the idea was to discuss if this was justified at all. My opinion is, of course, that revenge is never justified. The other thing is that people have a tendency to judge me as a person from the films I do, perhaps because I can’t shut up at press conferences, which I will now not do anymore. People do have a tendency to focus more on me than the films, and I’m not especially interested in being looked at, so to speak.

Many of your films offer easy-to-grasp moments, like the massacre at the end of Dogville, or the genital mutilation in Antichrist, and so it’s easy to overlook what else is going on in the work.  To look at a storyline and measure what you would say the moral of the film or moral of the filmmaker is, I think that’s very superficial. Of course, because someone is killed at the end of the film, that doesn’t mean I think it’s right that they should be killed. I’m talking about Antichrist — if it was misogynist or not, the film. I don’t see myself as a misogynist. I [write and direct] female parts that are more human than a lot of people. There are real human beings behind the characters. If you want that then you have to take the good with the bad; if they’re real humans, then they’re not heroines. I think that’s quite essential.

Your protagonists are usually female, which is not common for a male filmmaker. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?   I have a very unsympathetic answer to that, if you want it. I’m actually fooling everybody. I write a film that is a male film, with one or two good male parts, and then I make a lot of female parts that are clichés, cowards, idiots, whatever, and then just before I make the film I switch it around. This is for two reasons. One is that no man would ever have the guts to stand up and say, “I think the male parts are cliché,” whereas women would do that straightaway. And the second is that I get real people for the women. I think the reason why it sometimes works with these female parts is that I don’t try to make them female. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about, what would a woman think or do — I just think about what I would do. And that gives credibility to the human being, which might be better than if I tried to make [the character] female.

Going back to the subject of misinterpretation for a moment — it seems like Melancholia could be really easily misinterpreted as well. I can imagine people coming away from it saying, “Lars von Trier is such a nihilist, he hates everything about life on earth,” and so on. Do you foresee any misreadings of the film?  If you misread this one, you’ll misread Cinderella. Come on! I think this is the most Disney-like film I’ve ever done, you know? If you ask me, it’s a little bit too slick and too simple.

While watching the film’s wedding sequence, knowing you have some history of depression, I wondered if perhaps Justine was like you at a premiere party trying to distract yourself from your own depression. That’s very interesting. One thing that I find myself doing in the middle of a party with journalists and women who would talk me into a corner is just running away and getting into a bathtub.

It reminds me of something Woody Allen once said, which is that he works so often in order to busy himself with solvable problems that distract him from the larger, more daunting problems of existence. I’m wondering if you empathize with that, and also, what meaning your films hold in your own life.  Of course, I can relate to that. You know, Carl Dreyer said it in a more poetic way — he said, “Film is my only true passion.” Which of course is not so nice for his wife. But it’s a great job, if you talk about it as a job, because it’s very interesting and fun. Sometimes it’s a lot of hard work, but I agree with Woody Allen, especially about the problems that arise when you film — they can be very stimulating. If something suddenly can’t be done and you have to turn everything around, that can be very fulfilling. I feel a little guilty about this film because I don’t think I really set the bar high enough. I feel a little lazy. I knew that I could do this without a lot of effort. Also, it was a little too pleasurable to do this film. Since I’m from a Protestant country, you know, we don’t like that very much.

Do you ever play perverse games with yourself by imagining what you could have done differently to make a better film?  No, although you have given me a good idea. But it still is like climbing a mountain every time. The difficulties and the energy that you have to put in it are so enormous. If a film suddenly had to be done again, that would be terrible.

Unless you’re Jorgen Leth.  Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. To do it better — I don’t know. I don’t even think I could’ve done the press conference in Cannes a little better. It could have been done better, but I just talked to a journalist about it, and we talked about being sorry for something. I said to him, “I’m not sorry for anything I’ve done in my life.” Of course, I’m sorry if I hurt some people, but sorry about something you did — you do it because you’re you. If I was Bill Clinton, I would not be sorry about the cigar and Monica Lewinsky. He might be sorry that it came out — I’m not talking about the cigar, I’m talking about the news [laughs]. But to see him with all these priests? He had to say “I’m sorry” on television, he had to say “I’m sorry” to Hillary — I can see in her eyes that she’s been through worse—and then he had to say “I’m sorry” to a lot of priests. And this, for a European, especially for me, was so fake. It was like hitting yourself in public — how can that make it better? You have to stand for what you do. It’s a long discussion. Forget it!

[Laughs] Well, you said making a film is like climbing a mountain. I’m thinking about The Five Obstructions — do you find that there’s a certain merit that comes from imposing limitations on yourself, and do you seek to impose limitations on your work? Or do they merely arise naturally, from budget constraints and such? The limitations from Dogme and those days were very much done to raise the bar high. The whole idea was, if there was something I thought I mastered, it was illegal to use that technique. To make it difficult. You know, I’m reading Marcel Proust right now, I don’t know if you’ve read it?

I haven’t. And I feel very guilty about that.  No, not at all! All I’m saying is, you should read literature that’s more difficult than what you can really master. It’s like the stick you put up when you have a flower. If the stick is too short, you don’t know how big the flower can be. So for me, that’s with literature as well as films.  You should make something that is too difficult. Otherwise, you don’t use your full potential.

So do you think you’ve mastered these gorgeous, slow-motion opening sequences, which you’ve done in Antichrist and now Melancholia? Oh, yeah. It’s funny, I met Marty Scorsese and he said, “Oh, Antichrist is so beautiful, the beginning,” and I said, “It’s black and white in slow motion, how can you go wrong?” And I had forgotten that I was talking to the man who had made Raging Bull! He smiled and said, “No, you’re right, you can’t go wrong.” So it’s a little bit the same with some of these shots here now. They’re a little more extreme, but I think I’ve mastered this to a degree where it’s not so interesting. I would like to go other places.

Did you shoot that sequence at 1,000 frames per second? That is correct, around 1,000 frames. You know, it takes a lot of light to shoot. Some were probably doubled in the computer afterward, I don’t know.

What is it like, to direct at that speed?  It’s very difficult. You can’t really direct. I don’t know if you know the camera — the hard disc starts over every 30 seconds. So you have to start it when you think you have the movement that you need. What I think is interesting now is to shoot something that doesn’t really benefit from slow motion. It’s like an X-ray, somehow, in that it kind of reflects another world. It’s a little difficult to say, but it’s just that if you use slow motion in an obvious way, it’s not so interesting, but if you use it on something that’s almost not moving in itself, then it suddenly [fits].

What about the digital effects for the opening sequence? What sort of programs did you use for that? Were you happy with how it turned out? What was interesting was that it was so much more difficult to make this planet [Melancholia] than we thought. Not so much in the first shots but in the shots where it’s combined with real life. You imagine it to be just a disc that you paint in, but it took us a long time, and I must say, we could have learned from the professionalism of the Americans — something as important as a planet, you should design it before the film. We didn’t do that. It was a lot of work. It’s difficult for me to say what went wrong, but it’s easy to see if it’s alive or not alive, the planet. We had to end up with 3D animation with seven layers of the planet. It was enormous work. It doesn’t look spectacular, but it does have a little bit of the look I was seeing. Have you seen the Russian version of Solaris?

I have. It has this very primitive liquid sky that he uses for the sea, a very poetic side to it that — a little of that primitive feeling I wanted to see in the planet.


All the images in the opening sequence are really stunning. I particularly liked the shots of Kirsten Dunst walking and being pulled by vines, the shot of Charlotte Gainsbourg and her son on the golf course and the shot taken from overhead that kind of looks like something out of Last Year At Marienbad. The resemblance to [Marienbad] was purely by coincidence because the park looked very much like it. I was not unhappy [about that]. In Marienbad, you remember, they painted the shadows on the ground [to get that effect]. What was interesting here was that we wanted the two shadows, and then suddenly we had a setup that looked very much like Marienbad.

Right. So what is your process like for coming up with those sorts of visuals?  [Long pause] Some of them come, of course, from things that I like. [Bruegel’s] “The Hunters In The Snow” painting is also in Solaris, in the space station. Another inspi ration came from a painting of Ophelia in the water. I think that [shot] was especially successful since that was not painted on afterward. The more you can get in real life, the more interesting it gets. The fantasy of when you’re sitting around and can change everything in post, that’s too limited. Reality gives you much more richness. And I did quite a lot of research — I went to scientists and asked, “what would happen if a planet of this size came here?”

It’s interesting that classical painting is something of an inspiration, since of course you also use the overture from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde over the opening sequence. Was that music in mind from the start? Yes, when we started shooting the sequence, but not from the start. In the start I was thinking of having melancholic music, and this is not what I would call melancholic. [Wagner] is romantic music. What I’m a little bit ashamed of is that it’s like whipped cream, a little bit — you just throw it on the cake. I’m not used to using underscoring. We decided to go over the top by shoveling this music on the film. The good thing about that is that it kind of means different things in different scenes, but it is on the edge of being in bad taste, I’m afraid.

So, to switch gears for a moment, when I think of Kirsten Dunst, I think about seeing her in teen movies, the Spider-Man movies, when she was growing up. How did you come to choose her for this?  A long time ago I had a discussion with P.T. Anderson and I asked him if there were any female actors I should look out for. And he mentioned Kirsten Dunst. After I lost Penélope Cruz [for this part], I was in doubt about what to do, and Kirsten was suddenly available. I think she did a really good job, I must say. She had some knowledge of depression herself, which was a great help.

What was your approach to directing her performance? I have a very specific technique that either you like or you hate as an actor: I try to do many different things with a scene. That means I might, if we have time, try to do the same scene in another tempo. Or, I’d say, “Just before you got to the castle you ran a cat over and you’re trying to hide this while you’re still in your wedding gear.” I get a lot of different material that I can later put together, so that I can achieve more life, so to speak. Because again, the imagination of the director and of the actors is limited compared to what you get if you try to access the scene from other angles, if you try not to think so much about what is “correct” in the psychological way. Life is so much richer than any theories you might have about it. So I’m trying to artificially build up some life by making stuff that doesn’t logically belong there. My experience tells me that women — female actors — are much more willing to go to strange places. The men have a tendency to want to control their character.

Earlier in your career, with films like Dogville and Manderlay, you were coming from a very intellectual place; the films had very specific critiques to present. With Antichrist and Melancholia, your films have become much more emotionally and subjectively concerned, more experiential. Would you agree with that?  Yeah, I do agree. I hope that I’m moving further because I started reading books, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t done for many years. I read books when I was young, and then I didn’t read books for a long time. I don’t know what I did all these years—I guess I did some films, okay. But at a certain time I was drinking too much, and then I stopped drinking, and the night becomes long when you don’t drink. So I picked up some books. I started reading Dostoevsky and what was striking was that I saw a whole world that in contemporary films, as far as I know, is under-prioritized. What I’m saying is, if you have the plotline and the storyline, films today have a tendency to move closer and closer to the storyline. Films today, there’s not a single scene that hasn’t got to do with the plot. Whereas in these big novels there are big diversions, and then they just touch the storyline slightly, and then they jump off again, which gives a life to them, a richness to them, qualities that films can’t give you. Because as we talked about with the flower, if you don’t have a stick that’s long enough, you’re in trouble.


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