Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela’s parents and sibling some years earlier. Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) might be a little awkward, but he just wants to fit in; Angela (Felissa Rose), meanwhile, seems downright disturbed, spending much of her time dead silent, staring down her fellow campers with a mournful, almost accusatory glare. Before long, some of those campers start dropping dead as surely as the flies that coat the glue strips dangling in Arawak’s kitchen. There’s a soup incident, a shower incident, and an incident involving a toilet stall and angry bees. There’s a bit of business with a curling iron that’s probably inappropriate in a movie starring underage actors. The slasher’s hands appear on screen, but do they belong to unhappy Angela? Overprotective Ricky? Or someone else entirely?
By 1978, Ingmar Bergman was in trouble. The director had fled his native Sweden two years earlier after an arrest on charges of tax evasion. (He would be completely exonerated in 1979, but his mood was no doubt grim until then.) He visited Paris and Los Angeles, then settled in Munich, where he would shoot his first English-language film, the 1920s Berlin-set The Serpent’s Egg, a Dino de Laurentiis co-production co-starring David Carradine and Bergman stalwart Liv Ullmann. The Serpent’s Egg was a box-office flop in Sweden, a critical and commercial failure internationally, and most of all a big artistic disappointment for Bergman himself–a decided stumble for a director riding high on the success of 1970s titles like the harrowing Cries and Whispers, which enjoyed huge success in the U.S. in the unlikely care of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and the audience-friendly The Magic Flute. At the same time, Bergman was embarking on what would prove to be an unhappy tenure at Munich’s Residenztheater, where he managed to mount eleven productions before being fired in 1981. In this turbulent context, the very Bergmanesque Autumn Sonata can be seen as a kind of comfort film–a deliberate return to roots. Someone once described it as “Bergman does Bergman,” and the gag stuck. Bergman himself eventually quoted the remark, calling it “witty but unfortunate. For me, that is.”
At a certain point about a third of the way into the home invasion thriller You’re Next, in which a wry indie comedy about a dysfunctional family gathering is interrupted by a wry indie slasher picture, a meathead sitting in the row in front of me started applauding. It was a slow clap. On screen, a man wearing a lamb mask had just punched a woman, hard, the force of his blow pushing her through a window. The meathead chuckled appreciatively before putting his hands together for the psycho. The woman crawled on the broken glass until the man in the mask pushed the sole of his boot into the top of her head, his axe following the arc of a golf swing before finding its mark. The meathead tittered delightedly about this and muttered something that I chose to ignore.
“No more happy endings,” joked Lars Von Trier, still smarting from the beating he took upon the release of Antichrist. Late in 2009, the director said he was planning a science-fiction film about the end of the world, fueling speculation that the new one would be a departure from the dark, junk-crushing epic that had earned him such scorn at Cannes. But now that Melancholia is here, it plays like an obvious companion piece to the earlier film. There are some tweaks, sure. Antichrist depicted a marriage racked by a woman’s guilt, while Melancholia features a wedding wrecked by a woman’s depressive disorder. But both films probe the nature of depression and the ways it can inspire people to withdraw, lash out, and sabotage their own chances at happiness.
As films go, The Tree of Life is a huge thing — a movie by a man with the audacity to take as his apparent subject all of human existence. “I know something about the cosmos,” Terrence Malick seems to declare, “because I grew up with two brothers under the parentage of a gruff father and a beaming, adoring mother in sun-dappled environs of Oklahoma and Texas.” He’s not wrong. The greatest filmmakers have shown us again and again that there is no story that cannot, in the right hands and with the right gestures, be spun out to dimensions that encompass questions of love and faith, life and death, regret and longing.
This no-frills film-festival favorite from Greece is a single-family scenario. Like last year’s excellent Belgian film Home, with which it shares a certain dark comedy (but not the earlier film’s reluctant optimism), it features a wife and children who exist largely apart from the larger world into which the male breadwinner ventures on a daily basis. But where that separation in Home was generally a question of geography, in Dogtooth it’s a matter of patriarchy.