Having narrowly survived his harrowing brush with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, Darren Aronofsky is back in bonkers tortured-artist mode with this allegorical freak-out about poetry, celebrity, and the act of creation. More impressive than the density of metaphors running through this plainly Biblical yarn is the ferocity of Aronofsky’s execution. No matter what happens, he keeps the camera close to Jennifer Lawrence; for the bulk of the film, any shot she doesn’t actually appear in is a point-of-view shot. So we experience events as she does — her property trespassed upon, her authority disrespected, she remaining in good-wife mode longer than is healthy. And Aronofsky directs the hell out of the film’s third act, which unfolds with a disorienting kind of dream logic that belies the fundamental absurdity of events on screen. I don’t find the central metaphor(s) so compelling in itself, but I think the film works on an emotional level as long as it’s fundamentally Lawrence’s story. She is the dreamer, and this borderline surrealist frenzy is her nightmare, and it’s spooky and scary and richly suggestive and I’m completely on board. But then the film establishes its continuity with the Aronofsky Cinematic Universe, which is kind of a bummer. Once the creator presents his revelation — God’s love for humankind, eternal recurrence, etc. — it becomes clear it’s not really her story. It’s Aronofsky’s story. It’s always been Aronofsky’s story. And I just can’t relate.
Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone. Continue reading
Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris, a novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, betrays the director’s general disinterest in conventional SF tropes. His film does honour the mind-blowing outlines of Lem’s concept, which deals with a manned mission to investigate a planet-sized extra-terrestrial consciousness. But where Lem speculated about the practical boundaries of human intellect in the shadow of the universe, Tarkovsky opts to explore human feelings of loss and insecurity in the face of mortality. For Lem, the failed Solaris mission is emblematic of the difficulties we humans would have comprehending and communicating with a radically different form of life. For Tarkovsky, the mission re-opens old psychic wounds, flooding us with regret that we weren’t better to the people we loved. “Shame [is] the feeling that will save mankind,” murmurs protagonist Kris Kelvin near the end of the film. In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, we have made contact with the aliens, and they want you to call your mom.
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.
Breaking the Waves, a powerful fable from Danish director Lars von Trier (Zentropa, The Kingdom) is as daunting as it is satisfying. The satisfaction comes from von Trier’s audacious and ever-deepening sense for filmmaking — Breaking the Waves is his most ambitious and skillfully drawn narrative so far, and it offers the pleasure of undertaking an uncertain journey, unsure of where it might all end. That’s also what’s daunting. Breaking the Waves is epic in scope, careering wildly from warm and fleshy love story to grim tragedy to something else entirely over the course of its 158 minutes. It’s a film that demands your rapt attention bit by bit, plumbing ever-deeper corners of the soul and plunging at one point into the abyss. Finally, once it’s over, it will return day by day to haunt its audiences. This is seriously nervy filmmaking.