Philosophy of Evil
The opening of Melancholia presents a series of shots over an ominous Wagner soundtrack: a horse struggling on the ground; Charlotte Gainsbourg running with a boy in her arms; Kirsten Dunst floating in a river, wearing a wedding dress; and two planets, first passing each other, then colliding in space. Compelling but also puzzling, the sequence didn’t prepare anyone at Cannes for Lars von Trier’s announcement at his press conference: “I understand Hitler,” he said, “I sympathize with him a bit.”
The declaration was sensational, and responses and his
apology were predictable, but the film takes its own course, sometimes stunning and, at least at its start, familiar. Melancholia‘s story begins with a typical dysfunctional family wedding: Justine (Dunst) deals with what seems like clinical depression even as she prepares to marry Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), as her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) dominates the proceedings. And while Justine’s sister Claire (Gainsbourg) maintains her poise, her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is increasingly upset.
As you’re anticipating a confrontation, Justine begins compulsively rearranging art books on display in her sister’s house, to showcase images by Bruegel, Caravaggio, and John Everett Millais, specifically Ophelia, a painting that reminds us of Justine’s appearance at film’s start. By its end, as planet Melancholia approaches on its collision course with Earth, it’s Claire and John who are unnerved, and Claire, so apparently antisocial, has in fact been behaving appropriately.
The film’s long-building sense of foreboding is as effective as that of von Trier’s previous entry at Cannes, Antichrist, achieved in part by shooting the “diabolical” woods with a parabolic lens. Both films eventually, and unfortunately, give away all the answers as to the source and potency of evil. Antichrist introduced a fox who informed us, “Chaos reigns!” as the audience chuckled. In Melancholia, Justine tells us that humanity is “evil,” that “we are alone in the universe,” and that no one will miss us after we are gone. The mystery she embodies—how can she know what she knows, including the number of beans in a jar in the wedding lottery?—is short-lived, however. The collision does not tell us anything more, visually or philosophically, than what we’ve seen before, say, in Sarah Connor’s apocalyptic dream in Terminator 2. The answers offered here seem just as superfluous and unserious as Trier’s press conference bombshell.
Another sort of evil inhabits the marshes in Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan (Outside Satan), but here there are no simple answers. Much of the film takes place amid a deserted landscape, where a sullen girl (Alexandra Lematre) and a hermit (David Deawale) she’s befriended wander about and pray together. The hermit acts as a healer (or possibly an exorcist) for the local villagers, yet his saintly role is tainted by a penchant for violence. To protect the girl, he kills her abusive stepfather and then severely beats a guard who makes unwanted advances at her.
As bodies pile up, other nefarious individuals appear, making us wonder who, if anyone, is the film’s Satan, or if there is an “outside.” The divide between good and evil is constantly moving—the film’s stable feature is that empty landscape at la Côte d’Opale, near de Boulogne sur Mer. The girl, the only one who appears categorically innocent, seems under the spell of her protector, which doesn’t bode well for her purity going forward.
The film’s moral ambiguity is of a piece with Dumont’s previous work. A onetime philosophy teacher, he spends little time in the film’s press notes discussing plot, and quite a bit talking about the setting and the interactions between the actors, Deawale a Dumont film veteran and Lematre a first-time actress. Such lack of illumination mirrors the film’s. Neither as vivid nor as explicit as von Trier’s film, Hors Satan nevertheless conjures an anticipation of evil that never lets up its hold on the audience.