Few lives go untouched by some form of trauma or catastrophe, yet compassion is often the last thing we spare for the people who cross our paths, especially when there’s no obvious indication they might need anything from us. This point was elegantly made in Black Sun (2005), Gary Tarn’s expressionistic documentary about life as seen (or not) by Hugues de Montalembert, a French writer and painter who was blinded in a mugging in 1978, yet continued with his artistic endeavours and peripatetic habits. In his voiceover narration, de Montalembert describes being on the receiving end of many gestures of compassion, such as being escorted through an airport in India by beggars who came to his aid unasked. He also speaks of the conversation he once had with a taxi driver who expressed his sympathy upon noting de Montalembert’s condition. The Frenchman thanked him before noting that there were so many people far more wounded than he, yet because they don’t have telltale signs of distress or disability, they get nothing like the compassion that he regularly receives from strangers. After a momentary silence, the driver said he understood this very well, explaining that he’d witnessed the murders of his wife and children in Cambodia. There’s no doubt in de Montalembert’s mind about whose wounds are worse.
The value of compassion is of fundamental concern in Monsieur Lazhar, formerly known as Bachir Lazhar when it won the Piazza Grande audience prize at Locarno in August. The thoughtful and precisely rendered fourth feature by Philippe Falardeau, it is also the story of people bearing witness to death, and the fact that the first of these witnesses are children is a shock that reverberates through the rest of the film.
A deft, brisk opening sequence establishes Monsieur Lazhar’s principal setting, an elementary school at the point in a Montréal winter when the city’s only colours are “white, grey, and dog-pee yellow,” as one kid puts it. Morning classes have yet to begin and most of the children mill about in the snowy playground. This being a Thursday, it’s the turn for Simon (Emilien Neron) to come in early and deliver the milk for his fellow students in his grade-six class. Upon finding the classroom’s door locked, he peers inside a window and sees his teacher Martine swinging by her neck from the ceiling. He runs down the hallway, and the camera remains fixed on a seemingly innocuous shot of a wall of lockers for several tense moments as we begin to hear the other children approaching. A frantic teacher beats the rush and tries to herd them back outside again, but not before Simon’s friend, Alice (Sophie Nelisse), spies a glimpse through the window, too.
Along with a suitably concerned psychologist who’s ready to cater to any of the students’ grieving needs (provided such needs arise on her timeline), the suicide prompts the arrival of another newcomer. A man who comports himself with a certain dignity yet is still sufficiently friendly to fare well in the company of children, Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) informs the school’s harried principal that he taught for 19 years in Algeria and is available to take over the class. Lacking any other applicants, she hastily agrees and sends him on to the classroom, which has been freshly painted but is otherwise the same as it was the morning of Simon and Alice’s discovery.
Lazhar’s eagerness to engage his new charges during his first class fades when he notices one boy staring into a corner of the room. “That’s where Martine hung herself,” he says with the steadiness of a child who’s just mastered an incontrovertible fact. It’s one of the work’s great strengths that the reasons behind Martine’s suicide remain perplexing to both her former students and to the adults coping with the immediate aftermath. Nothing about her final act can be explained away. “It’s hard to understand why anyone chooses to kill herself,” says Lazhar to a fellow teacher late in the film, “but it’s impossible to understand why she did it there.”
Just as Simon and Alice carry the death of Martine with them, Lazhar is burdened with ghosts of his own. It soon becomes clear that there are questions about Lazhar’s status in Canada. His pending refugee claim is hashed out during immigration hearings before a judge and a combative lawyer who wonders aloud why Lazhar’s still making his claim when Algeria is “back to normal.” Eventually, Lazhar describes the circumstances that forced him into exile and inflicted the wounds that he tries to conceal in the classroom with his twinkling eyes and curiously archaic teaching methods. (If you needed any proof about how much enthusiasm kids have for Balzac, look no further.)
French-speaking audiences may detect parallels between Lazhar’s story and that of the man who plays him. A popular actor, playwright, and satirist in Algeria, Fellag exiled himself to France after the clampdown on freedom of expression in his homeland manifested itself as a bomb attack on one of his productions. Usually an exuberant performer onstage, the 51-year-old Fellag handles his role here with a quiet precision and a keen sensitivity to his fellow actors that is all the more remarkable when you consider that this could have literally been a one-man show. Indeed, the play on which Falardeau’s film is based—by Québécois playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière—was written for a solo performer. Instead, the director broadens out the work with great finesse, allowing not only for child performances of the same high calibre Falardeau elicited from his young cast in his third feature C’est pas moi, je le jure (2008), but a richer portrait of the white, grey, and dog-pee yellow world that exists beyond the classroom.
So careful is Falardeau with his task here that not until the film’s final moments is it clear how well he’s balanced a formidable array of themes that range from the psychological to the political to the pedagogical. The echoes of screen stories of valiant schoolteachers from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) to Entre les murs (2008) are as unmistakable as the work’s relationship to another kind of narrative that’s long been popular among Canadian writers, and one that’s destined for a comeback thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010): the story of exiles whose lives in new lands continue to be shaped by the traumas they suffered long before they made that fateful “trip without papers,” in Lazhar’s words.
But what generates the most poignancy in Monsieur Lazhar is its sincere and courageous effort to determine the exact kind of compassionate gesture each of its characters require, an especially demanding challenge for occupants of an educational system that forbids any kind of contact between teacher and student lest it lead to a lawsuit. (Lazhar’s co-workers are quick to grumble about the difficulty of connecting with children they’re not allowed to touch.) Thus Monsieur Lazhar becomes an affecting lesson in not only the importance of recognizing each other’s needs, but having the courage to respond accordingly. The presence of death makes those needs all the more urgent and acute, though Lazhar is right to tell Alice that the process of grief is not about the suppression of memory. “The dead stay in our heads because we loved them,” he says. “And they loved us.”
“The purpose of provocations is to get people to think,” declared Lars von Trier in Stig Björkman’s documentary Tranceformer—A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997). By those standards, the provocation von Trier masterminded at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which, in reference to the concomitant Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair that monopolized the television sets in the Palais, metastasized into what Manohla Dargis termed “L’affaire LVT,” failed miserably. In the aftermath of von Trier’s rambling comic riff, which his publicist referred to as a “Lenny Bruce-style routine which bombed,” neither the aging Danish enfant terrible nor the festival which feigned outrage at his remarks managed to appear either credible or dignified.
Von Trier has always had a rather tenuous relationship to public relations. His so-called “provocations” are usually promotional tools that toy with self-sabotage, and it’s certainly no coincidence that Justine (eventual Cannes Best Actress winner Kirsten Dunst), the protagonist of his new film Melancholia, is employed at a PR firm. In the farcical pseudo-controversy initiated at a dull point in the Melancholia press conference, von Trier and the Cannes brass performed what began to seem like preordained roles with varying degrees of ineptitude. Von Trier highlighted his buffoonish tendencies by responding to a question about his German roots by impishly claiming that he felt slightly “sympathetic” to Hitler and ribbing Susanne Bier, the Danish-Jewish director he once employed at Zentropa, his production company. The questioner, however, appeared to be referencing an interview von Trier gave to Film, the magazine of the Danish Film Institute, in which he confessed to having “a weakness for the Nazi aesthetic.”
Content to dig himself into a hole for the delectation of the international press, the garrulous director insisted, “But come on, I’m not for the Second World War…I am of course very much for the Jews. No, not too much because the Israelis are a pain in the ass…OK, I’m a Nazi.” Bizarrely enough, Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux managed to anoint von Trier with a peculiar sort of gravitas by declaring him “persona non grata.” During a festival that honoured Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, bona fide Iranian non-persons, the ostracized Dane, despite his mediocre film and frivolous statements, became a cause célèbre in his own right, at least as far as the editors of certain disgruntled journalists were concerned. (Like many journalists covering Cannes, I was urged to report on the uproar; the day after the initial brouhaha, I showed up at von Trier’s luxury hotel in nearby Mougins where he spouted a series of ritualized apologies to successive roundtables.)
If anything serious can be extracted from these sophomoric hijinks, it might be a discussion of the political legacy of German Romanticism, which von Trier impetuously linked to a fascist tradition. Before taking a stab at that task, however, it needs to be said that von Trier probably doesn’t have a genuinely political bone in his body, and is certainly no more a putative “fascist” director than he was a supposed “leftist,” or “anti-American” director at the time that Dogville spurred on a similarly unilluminating contretemps. Of course, ever since the release of his first feature The Element of Crime, von Trier has paid explicit homage to Andrei Tarkovsky, and the placement of some of the most famous leitmotifs of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde alongside some vaguely Tarkovskian imagery in the “overture” to Melancholia makes one wonder if the melancholy Dane is aiming at some hybrid version of conservative modernism—perhaps a fusion of Tarkovsky and Syberberg at his most florid.
The problem is that, despite his professed admiration for modernist masters such as Tarkovsky and Antonioni, von Trier will always be the most vacuous kind of postmodernist. A talent for visual pastiche served von Trier well in early features such as The Element of Crime (1984), an enjoyable assemblage of noirish themes with a strikingly expressionist visual palette. But his efforts to tackle Big Themes in subsequent films consistently degenerate into artistic elephantiasis. Melancholia’s grandiloquent “overture” is a case in point. Although there’s certainly superficial virtuosity in the digitized tributes to the Pre-Raphaelites, Gregory Crewdson, and Brueghel that set the stage for the apocalyptic proceedings, the overall achievement seems to be more akin to a superlative job of photoshopping than anything approximating the more nuanced artistic reveries of Tarkovsky or Antonioni.
Truth be told, the best thing about Melancholia is its title. In an era where pop therapy abounds, true melancholy and its affinity to beauty needs to be rehabilitated—and of course differentiated from the more banal categories of “mental illness” and “depression.” In a pivotal phase of German Romanticism exemplified by Novalis’ poetry, the quintessentially melancholy category of “longing” is linked with a quest for the “unattainable.” Yet there’s also a tangibly utopian element to Novalis’ melancholy, personified by his dictum, “All representation rests on making present that which is not present.” Or as Max Blechman puts it in his essay “The Revolutionary Dream of Early German Romanticism,” “the Romantics’ pantheistic faith points to how art and religion are fundamentally one and the same activity. For is not art the desire to see the real in the ideal, to enliven the ideal behind the real, to transform unconscious idealism into conscious idealism—and is this not done through faith in the ideal?”
Despite von Trier’s fetishization of certain residual elements of late Romanticism—particularly Wagner’s concern with the transcendent power of fusing love and death—there is none of the communitarian fervour that imbued the work of political Romantics such as Blake and Shelley in Melancholia. All that is left in von Trier’s bloated take on The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is facile cynicism. Melancholia’s central narrative kernel in the film’s first part—the fractious preparations for Justine’s marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), her boss’ son—comes off as an inferior variation on themes culled from Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma film The Celebration (1998). After this monotonous rehash of dysfunctional family dynamics, the film swerves into more fanciful territory as Justine feuds with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and contemplates the impending collision of “Planet Melancholia” with Earth. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), a reasonable type who doubts that the end of the world is near, is lampooned as a rationalist stooge.
A well-known depressive himself, von Trier apparently identifies with the plight of the lugubrious and sexually promiscuous Justine. But, despite his efforts to create a heroine who is not a masochistic victim (i.e., the protagonists of Breaking the Waves , Dancer in the Dark , and Dogville) Justine’s clichéd closeness to nature, especially horses, makes her, in the final analysis, just another stock female character.
Von Trier’s parody of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in Melancholia, as well as his ostensibly tongue-in-cheek obeisance to a “Nazi aesthetic,” also go a long way towards contextualizing the disparity between his appropriation of Romanticism and the revolutionary tradition of the 18th-century Romantics. As Theodor Adorno observes in In Search of Wagner, by the time an insurrectionary Romanticism congealed into the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in the 19th century, a retrograde emphasis on the poet/composer as individualist seer, instead of a prophet of community, became evident. Adorno subtly demonstrates how Wagner’s superficially avant-gardist ideal actually became commodified and foreshadowed the 20th-century phenomenon of the “culture industry.”
On a more pedestrian level, similar contradictions have fuelled von Trier’s career. His seemingly anti-bourgeois provocations, whether deemed “progressive” or “reactionary,” merely serve to conveniently situate his brand of art cinema within the confines of a profitable, if prestigious, tributary of the global culture industry. The fact that the world ends with a pleasurable whimper in Melancholia is highly appropriate; even the final conflagration turns out to be an over-hyped non-event. If Wagner’s gorgeous music can still trigger at least a simulation of ecstasy, von Trier’s films, even when propped up with the trappings of scandal, can only inspire a hearty shrug.
Films that decline to demonize their monstrous subjects—murderers, dictators, pedophiles—are often said instead to “humanize” them. On some level, that is the intent of Markus Schleinzer’s first feature, Michael, which is named for its pederast protagonist. But the terseness of the title is also instructive. Touted at Cannes as “the Austrian pedophile film”—and reportedly elevated from Un Certain Regard to the Competition at the last minute, perhaps for its tantalizing whiff of scandal—the movie avoids the self-congratulatory shock and stunt-like pseudo-empathy that someone like Todd Solondz brings to the radioactive topic of child abuse. Instead Schleinzer fashions an unnervingly dry and dispassionate character study, albeit one less interested in the psychopathology of his 35-year-old protagonist (Michael Fuith) than in the perverse, even absurd practicalities of how he maintains a relationship with Wolfgang, the little boy locked in his cellar (David Rauchenberger), and how this geeky office drone keeps up appearances as a son, brother, and co-worker—a more or less functioning member of society.
Schleinzer, who had a small but memorable role in The Robber (2010) as the needling (and eventually bludgeoned) parole officer, has also worked as a casting director, notably on The White Ribbon (2009). Some were quick to compare Michael to Haneke—and there is indeed something very Austrian about Schleinzer’s head-on approach to an unpleasant subject—but the film is not a sadistic mindfuck. Much of its discomfort stems from an attempt to ask what it is we do and don’t want to know when it comes to pedophilia, to think through what many of us would prefer to classify as unthinkable.
Cinema Scope: You must have been aware that you were tackling a subject that presented all kinds of traps for a filmmaker.
Markus Schleinzer: A million traps. The first thing I wanted to avoid was becoming guilty myself. I did not want to make a film about abuse and end up abusing the actors or the story. The decision was quickly made not to tell a story from the victim’s side, which would make it easy to fall into cheap effects. I actually forbade myself to research too much at the beginning: I didn’t want to find some twist in some real-life story that would influence the film, and I didn’t want to exploit any existing pain. But after I had a script, I consulted a forensic psychiatrist because I wanted to be very sure that it didn’t wander too much into fantasy.
Scope: How conscious were you of dealing not just with pedophilia but also with how we think and talk about it—in other words, with how it’s presented in the media or other movies?
Schleinzer: The starting point for me was a certain disgust I felt for the way this subject is handled in the media, mostly the yellow press. Everybody’s just interested in the sordid sexual details of what happens behind these closed doors or in these cellars. But what’s absent is a serious attention to what is truly happening. In the first five minutes we show what’s expected from a film about pedophilia—we get it over with—but what actually fascinated me was the relationship that this man, Michael, builds, creates, looks for. If you approach an issue like pedophilia, your only choice is to do it all the way. So many films use this subject for dramaturgical purposes like in Mystic River (2003) where you see a child abused and then 30 years later you’re supposed to understand why people are a certain way.
Scope: What was it about the relationship that fascinated you? In the film we see Michael treat Wolfgang as a romantic and sexual object, but he also assumes a kind of parental role, and there are some unexpected shifts in the power dynamic.
Schleinzer: The disturbing element is exactly that we find in this relationship between the boy and the man the relationship structures that we know from our own lives. The changing balance of power, the impatience, the romantic moments: they’re all aspects of a normal relationship and the terrible thing is that Michael wants all these things and finds them in this thing he has created. He’s not a sadistic psychopath who’s planning to murder the boy. He has an abnormal attraction but he tries to follow the normal rules of relationships. Of course, the relationship is a projection, but in a sense, all our relationships are probably projections—we never really know if the relationship we see is the one we have.
Scope: The scenes that show Michael in his daily life, away from home, are no less crucial. There are some moments of humour when you see him in his work environment and on the ski trip.
Schleinzer: I wanted to show the broadest spectrum possible of this individual and not define him as a monster beforehand. It was about finding that right distance to the character that the audience could fill with their thoughts, without feeling that I was leading them into something preconceived. More than letting humour be part of the narrative, it’s about showing that he’s fallible. There was a conscious effort to bring him close to ridiculous moments, but not to ridicule him, which would have been exactly the same trap as bedevilling him. But an element of farce can bring out a humanity that we don’t want to admit. If I can laugh about someone there is an automatic acceptance, and that is something we have a problem with.
Scope: Could you talk about casting the role of the child, and directing the young actor you chose, David Rauchenberger?
Schleinzer: It was vital that the process take place with great openness and honesty. When we were casting, we gave out a synopsis, and when it came down to four possible children, I gave the parents the complete script, explaining how everything would be shot. There were no surprises. It disturbs me a little when people ask if children should be allowed to be in a film like this. I find it strange that there is never the same question about films where children are slaughtered. That kind of violence is considered mainstream entertainment, but when we deal with this subject, which is something that actually happens, it becomes a moral issue. Our shame prevents us from talking about it. But that doesn’t make it go away, and silence, in that respect, is a great danger.
Had I not been the casting director for The White Ribbon I don’t think I would’ve dared do this film. I worked with 48 children for over three months on that film, which taught me that it’s extremely important to meet a child at eye level, to recognize his needs and thoughts as a human being. I really worked to give David a place in the creative process. He did the drawings you see, he decided how things were arranged in the cellar, and he brought his own toys from home. I talked to him about how he saw the character, what kind of future he would have.
Scope: What about working with Michael Fuith?
Schleinzer: Michael can use very minimal methods to create great intensity. He was shocked by the script, but very honest about it, which I liked. He’s a very rational person, and in the end he realized that he couldn’t just play it as one character. The character was almost like someone with multiple personalities, so he divided him into something like five characters, where you have Michael in the office, the dominant Michael, Michael in his free time, and so on.
Scope: How would you sum up the reactions to the film so far?
Schleinzer: Perhaps because this film is about a relationship, everybody reacts according to his or her vision of a relationship. It seems like the French have a hard time with the film. I’m very satisfied with both the negative reactions and the positive ones. Most of the reactions show very well for me where we stand as a society. I was struck by how some people said the film has a “clinical” view. The film does not suggest, formally or in its narrative, what to think and what to feel, but there’s nothing clinical about it—it’s not clean. For some people, I think, there is an obvious expectation to be told what to feel. All I can say is my biggest wish is to provoke a discussion. I did not make this film to be loved as a filmmaker.