In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, writer Ursula K. Le Guin explains that “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” She describes the genre’s conceits as “thought-experiments” intended to explore contemporary phenomena, regardless of the timeframe in which the story takes place. Le Guin’s statement certainly applies to those films contemplating apocalyptic events, especially Melancholia and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. These two films both explore the nature of relationships, both romantic and familial, using the imminent demise of humanity to highlight the absurdity of social conventions and the drawbacks of optimistic thinking.
While thematically similar, these two films have very little else in common, at least upon first glance. The trailers below showcase differences in style, tone, and genre:
Seeking a Friend strikes a comedic note, following the exploits of neighbors Dodge (Steve Carrell) and Penny (Keira Knightly) as they each attempt to reunite with loved ones in preparation for a catastrophic meteor’s collision with Earth. The unlikely pair forms a bond over the course of the film, ultimately finding in each other the love and companionship each had sought during the film’s journey. It sounds a bit corny because it is, but I also found Seeking a Friend moving in spite of its predictability.
In contrast, Melancholia strives for something more subtle and complex in it’s dramatic approach to the same concept. This film portrays sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The women live together on a picturesque estate when a rogue planet, called Melancholia, appears in the sky. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) reassures her that the planet will merely fly by, despite contradicting opinions in the scientific community. Ultimately, Melancholia subsumes Earth but not before testing Claire and Justine’s ability to cope with the reality of impending doom.
This dramatic challenge to character that the apocalypse brings is the thought experiment at the heart of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia. With the destruction of the planet drawing near, characters must choose how to spend their remaining days and hours. In Seeking a Friend, you see many characters defying the social order in anticipation of death, with one scene depicting an end of the world party in which characters decide to try heroin. Another scene parodies the friendliness of casual chain restaurants, with waiters and customers engaging in orgiastic behavior. More absurdly, some characters cling to routine, in spite of the awareness of death. The drawn out nature and social setting of the film allows for an exploration of both responses, largely to comedic effect.
Melancholia’s more confined setting limits such an exploration of responses. What we do see, however, is a contrast between the sisters, whose roles also reverse in the course of the film as a result of changing circumstances. In the first half, labeled “Part 1: Justine,” we see Justine struggle to enjoy her lavish wedding reception much to Claire and her husband’s chagrin. In “Part 2: Claire,” this half initially portrays Justine as crippled by her depression; however, it is Claire who panics at the realization of the world’s end, while Justine remains calm and in control of her emotions. Her depression, it becomes clear, gives her the ability to cope with a crumbling world, and the pessimism to care little when contemplating the end of all life.
Penny and Dodge’s dynamic similarly plays upon the optimism/pessimism dichotomy. Penny openly describes herself as an optimist, with Knightley laying down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl charm to contrast Carrell’s at times wooden portrayal of the depressed Dodge; however, unlike Justine in Melancholia, Dodge does not initially seem better able to cope with the end of the world, though he does claim that he feels validated in his pessimism by the apocalypse. In their very last moments, though, it is Dodge who comforts Penny, staring into her eyes and asking her questions about her upbringing–he’s so enamored of her and so satisfied in the moment, he seems completely unfazed by the sounds of the meteor crashing to Earth.
Justine similarly demonstrates strength in the film’s final scenes, while Claire struggles with the knowledge that the world will end. After realizing that Melancholia will not merely fly by, Claire becomes hysterical. She suggests that they sip wine together on the terrace, a plan that Justine mocks as a “piece of shit.” As the weather turns volatile, Claire picks up her young son and races away with him on a golf cart, despite the inescapable nature of the threat before them. When this fails, Claire returns to the house with her son, whom Justine takes into the woods to gather sticks and build a “magic cave” for them to sit within. The scene below demonstrates their differing responses:
As in Seeking a Friend, Melancholia’s final moment is one of acceptance, but also of human connection, for the planet’s destruction unites all beings, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, it could be said, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek does in the clip below, that Melancholia in its embrace of Justine’s pessimism, actually becomes an optimistic film:
The same could be said for Seeking a Friend. Instead of surrendering to Penny’s desire that the end be she and Dodge “saving each other,” Seeking a Friend concludes with the two accepting their demise and showing gratitude for the little time they spent together; here, though, the two films part company. Melancholia undermines romantic love by portraying Justine’s wedding ceremony as a joyless sham, while Seeking a Friend seems to reinforce it through Penny and Dodge’s connection.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the outcomes of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia’s thought experiments are not so different. Even with their contrasting generic approaches, both show how pessimism enables its characters to accept the end, resulting in peaceful last moments through connection with others.
“The crying woman is a scheming woman.”
-She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Antichrist
Since hearing about Antichrist last spring, I’ve been eager to see the film and gauge the hype in relation to the content. This week, my “Gender and Horror Films” class was charged with watching the film after a failed attempt (technical difficulties) to watch it as a group. Tired from travel, I watched it in a daze which resulted in a very disturbing first viewing (note for future reference: slipping in and out of consciousness during scenes of genital violence burns these images into your brain). To be sure I’d grasped it in all its complexity, I rewatched the film a second time in the light of day. It proved less traumatizing and more easily digestible this time around, but still troubling for its ideologically problematic content. Find the film’s trailer below:
First things first, a brief run-down: the film opens with a highly stylized, melodramatic sequence in which a toddler falls from an open apartment window while his parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg, unnamed and credited as “She,” and Willem Defoe, likewise listed as “He”) have sex. Burdened with grief and guilt over her child’s death, She receives psychiatric treatment including powerful meds. He, who happens to be a therapist, disagrees with this regimen, insisting that She cut out the pills and focus on confronting her emotions. This inspires the couple to take a trip to their cabin out in the woods, a space that He identifies as one that She greatly fears. After several attempts to get her to face her fears, She seems to respond positively to the exercises claiming to be no longer afraid. Soon thereafter, however, He discovers some disturbing notes and pictures when looking over her research materials and She attacks him. After some grueling scenes of genital mutilation and torture, He strangles her before hiking up the mountain and away from the cabin. Following closely behind him: a swarm of women with pixelated faces, presumably out to finish what She started.
The question for me: can Antichrist possibly be interpreted as a feminist film in any sense? On the surface, I would say no. The film clearly aligns women with nature and its indifferent (scratch that, evil) power, suggesting that women compulsively harm men. The primary female character even recognizes this essential female evil after researching witchcraft for her master’s thesis (thank god I didn’t take my thesis topic so literally). Can a feminist reader work around these problems to develop a coherent progressive reading?
The misogyny is self-evident from the plot trajectory, but the narrative structure also lends itself to this interpretation with flashbacks that suggest She watched her son approach the window before plumetting to his death. He also discovers multiple pictures taken by his wife in which She put her son’s shoes on backwards (an accompanying flashback indicates this caused her son pain, as does a medical examiner’s report that notes foot deformities in the child). This newly-aquired knowledge on the viewer’s part puts earlier scenes in which She expresses regret for her son’s death in a different light.
Still, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Antichrist contains the seeds of an alternate reading. One of my fellow classmates suggested that Antichrist could be read as a “reimagining” of the Charlotte Perkins Stetson short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” That tale also features a wife treated for depression by her husband. His insistence that she remain confined against her wishes leads to her madness, despite her protests. Re-reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I can see my classmate’s point: like the husband in the short story, He regularly dismisses his wife’s concerns as irrational, calling upon his authority as a therapist and as a husband (He in Antichrist: “No one knows you better than I do”; the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”: “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.”) to disempower his wife. For these reasons, the husbands cause their wives’ psychoses more so than the initial depression.
But while “The Yellow Wallpaper” generates sympathy for its female protagonist by showing how her madness results from her treatment for post-partum depression due to its cruelty, Antichrist seems to suggest that by forcing her to confront her fears and embrace nature, He awakens a dormant evil inherent in all women. As a result, the film tranfers blame from the husband specifically to womankind as a whole. Few films have depicted a hatred for women so blatantly.
The only means of salvaging the film for a progressive reading would be to suggest that either a) the violent expressions of She consitute an act of resistence on the wife’s part or b) the events that unfold late in the film represent a kind of projection on the part of the husband. In both cases, the film might be seen as a critique of the very thing it portrays. The interpretative acrobatics required to make these readings work, however, weaken their plausibility.
Of course, I would welcome others to see the film and tell me what they think about it. Please post any of your ideas in the comments section below!
This year’s Cannes Film Festival features plenty of familiar faces directing the competition’s films. Previous Palme d’Or winners Jane Campion, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, and Quentin Tarantino all have films competing for prizes this year, demonstrating what a high caliber affair the festival continues to be. Of the many fascinating entries this year, the supernatural-themed films excite me the most, and surprisingly, there are quite a few to consider.
Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Enter the Void, focuses on a brother and sister, who move to Tokyo and work as a drug-dealer and stripper, respectively, to survive in a new country. When the brother dies in a drug-bust, his soul refuses to leave the world in order to fulfill a promise to his sister that he never leave her. According to the synopsis on the Cannes Festival website, the brother’s ghost “wanders through the city, his visions growing evermore distorted, evermore nightmarish. Past, present and future merge in a hallucinatory maelstrom.”
To be honest, I’ve yet to see any of Noé’s previous films, which most famously include I Stand Alone and Irreversible. These previous works seemed too racist and misogynistic for my taste, though I’ve never completely discounted them. Enter the Void, however, sounds relatively more socially conscious than his previous work, and I am particularly interested in how the brother-sister relationship is portrayed. On top of that, the stills available on the web look terrific. I’m hoping the film lives up to the fascinating concept and neon aesthetic.
Another supernatural entry comes courtesy of South Korean director Chan-Wook Park, the director who helmed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, and Lady Vengeance. Of his films, I’ve only seen the latter two of the vengeance trilogy along with his short film in the Three…Extremes anthology, and I’ve found that while his work is stylistically compelling, the stories fail to engage me on a gut level. It was only after a second viewing of Lady Vengeance that I really appreciated the emotion behind the complex narrative and realized that Park’s attempts to deconstruct the revenge genre ultimately enhance it.
I hope that this latest Park film, called Thirst, attempts something similar with the vampire genre. The film features a priest who becomes a vampire after traveling to Africa, dying upon contracting a virus, and receiving a blood transfusion that revives him. The trailer suggests that the film explores biblical themes of sin and resurrection, and vampirism seems to be equated most specifically with adultery.
After three popular films that primarily explored vengeance, I am interested to see Park’s take on these different themes through what sounds like a promising (though possibly problematic) storyline.
However, Lars von Trier’s entry called Antichrist intrigues me the most. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, the two play a couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods called Eden (again with the biblical reference) after the death of their only child. Upon arriving, strange phenomena occur apparently involving animals and other natural elements.
Given his previous work on The Kingdom series, von Trier seems to be an ideal director for the horror genre. I’m also intrigued by the choice of Charlotte Gainsbourg as the wife. I found her performance in I’m Not There haunting in its intensity, and the trailer for Antichrist hints at a similar undercurrent of melancholy in her character. Von Trier has been praised in the past for his direction of Emily Watson, Bjork, and Nicole Kidman, and while I question the paternalistic implications of framing the director/actress relationship as such, I am eager to see what the collaboration looks like given von Trier’s track record.
Overall, I’m thrilled to see that so many horror films have made it Cannes this year! This short list does not even take into consideration the latest Tarantino film or a film by Johnnie To called Vengeance about a professional killer avenging the death of his daughter’s family. Could the hard times of economic recession be inspiring this rash of violent movies by the best and brightest directors? I eagerly await their US releases to find out!