Or maybe Lars just got so entranced by his new camera he started falling in love with all his images, like a kid who goes through a whole role of film shooting the same flower from every angle, then pastes them all into his album. Lars forgot that images in a film are carriers of the story and require a certain pace to work properly; get too many repetitive shots and the audience starts wool gathering and you’ve lost them.
Which is a shame for this movie has some beautifully realized use of image-as-conveyor of story. And Trier uses slo-mo, dream-like images at the opening of the film that beautifully foreshadow both the story and what is coming at the end – a pair of fantastic cinematic book ends that will stay with you long after the film’s over.
Basically, the story is an end-of-the-world tale and/or (take your pick) an outward representation of the inner condition of profound depression – the hopeless, helpless, relentless coming apart of the sufferer’s inner world. (von Tries suffered from severe depression, so is familiar with that state.) In this world, (Kirsten Dunst) is at the estate of her wealthy brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) who’s paid big bucks for her elaborate wedding, which her sister, Clair, has planned. After endless wedding party shots, with no explanation, Dunst dumps hubby and with a scene change, she’s deep into a helpless depression and returning to the estate so her sister can care for her. While Dunst recuperates with her little isolated family (sister, brother-in-law, their young son, the sister’s much beloved horses) the audience is further informed that the little new star seen in the sky during the wedding is, in reality, a planet headed our way.
At first, Sutherland bustles about all scientific and engaged, convincing his frightened wife that the planet will fly by. Before long (after endless more scenes of everyone mooning around staring at one another in that artysy European art film way), the wife learns the truth – it won’t be a fly-by, her husband was lying to them. By that time, he’s committed suicide, leaving his family to their fate alone, the sister grabs her son and attempts to flee but there is nowhere to escape to, and it finally falls to Dunst to remind her little, terrified nephew that he’s not to be afraid, that she’s Aunty Steel-breaker (at least that’s what it sounded like) and she has powers to protect them all in a “magic cave,” which she proceeds to build, a teepee frame into which she brings her sister and nephew to wait until the planet crashes into them.
Certainly a fair enough story to tell. Which Triers does tell in those brilliant opening foreshadowing images; eerie, haunting shots of this giant planet glowing in the night sky; a super slo-mo shot of Dunst in her elaborate wedding dress fleeing through a thick forest filled with entangling vines clinging to her legs as she flees their clutches; a black horse suddenly falling, falling, falling to the ground; the sister clutching her son as she runs across what looks like a soft stretch of grass that horrifyingly turns to soft mud, sinking her up to her knees with each step, incapable of moving forward, and finally, Dunst, shot in such a way that she resembled a colossus while behind her lightning was streaking out of the dark clouds as she slowly raised her hands, her face as serene as a powerful and terrifying goddess, and watched with calm interest as lightning started flowing out of her fingers.
With those symbolic images, von Triers retells them in the film itself in more realistic fashion – the husband dumped at the wedding party, the killer planet approaching, the estate’s beloved horses which the audience knows are doomed, the mother fleeing in a golf cart in a futile attempt to save her son, and finally, Dunst remaining the only character left with the power, grace and courage to shield her loved ones from the final horror hurtling out of the sky.
Unfortunately, too much of the stuff in between these amazing book ends was so repetitive, self-indulgent, distracting and annoying that I suspect most of the audience was praying – praying – that that killer planet would just hurry up and arrive and get it over with.
Which is hardly the frame of mind a filmmaker should want his audience to have while watching his Masterpiece. And which is a shame as well, since clearly von Trier has in his artistic paint box some pretty spectacular movie-making skills and the understanding that film and dreams and poetry all operate on a far different level in our brains than other art forms. It’s too bad he lacked the hard, focused, disciplined eye that would have allowed him to winnow his rich assortment of “moving pictures” in order to tell his story in a far better fashion.
So, is this a film worth seeing? As painful as so much of it was to sit through, I’m actually glad I went because I’m glad I now have those amazing images firmly planted in my head. And the memory of how cleverly the film-maker book-ended that film. So, if you love movies, those things may well be worth the price of admission. And since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I guess all the self-indulgent crap in the middle was the price I had to pay for the good stuff.