This is the seventeenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.
As two troubling cards follow one another in the Major Arcana, so two provocateur directors follow each other in my list of associations. If the Fool follows the path laid out by the trumps, he has just experienced the turmoil of self-bondage with the Devil, and now, with the Tower, he hits rock bottom: the structure he has been building for himself is collapsing, and he will have to emerge from the rubble, or be washed away entirely by his trials.
Von Trier and Gaspar Noe both trade in the psychology of anxiety and crisis, but their approach is strikingly different. Gaspar Noe's films feel undeniably like punishment... there is very little in them that feels enlightening, or feels like any sort of opportunity for growth. The send the viewer through the ringer, and then the credits roll, and we take a deep breath and hope a pint of ice cream will salve our wounds. Von Trier, on the other hand, builds his films around crises that are part of a broader journey. They are still often depressing and nihilistic, but they also reveal something redemptive about their main characters, even if they're ultimately broken.
Of all Von Trier's movies, Anti-Christ is probably his most pessimistic -- it feels the most like a product of the Devil, leaving only ruins of its protagonists. The only enlightenment to be had in Anti-Christ is the knowledge that both He and She are reaping the consequences of their own sins. But Trier's more recent film, Melancholia, is more hopeful, even though it's a meditation on depression and despair.
In Melancholia, there is a binary system of support and collapse: first, there is the collapse of Justine's personality, as she sinks into self-destruction and sabotages her own wedding. With her sister's help, she eventually rises from the rubble of her life, reclaiming her composure. As she does this, there is a larger collapse: the collapse of the planet Earth, which is being devoured by a wayward planet, an agent of the end of the world. This is a crisis from whence there can be no recovery; but Justine has already looked into this abyss, and she alone is equipped to face down a future without hope. Through Justine, the small family has an opportunity to find peace, and even dignity, in the shadow of an approaching cataclysm.
Von Trier's emotional machinations are subtle, but they are multi-dimensional. His preoccupation with human behavior in the shadow of crisis goes back to his earlier films, with Breaking the Waves as an especially poignant example. In Breaking the Waves, Bess must face the crisis of her husband's paralysis, occurring just after they have been married. In a misguided attempt to heal him, Bess sacrifices herself through perversity and self-denial. And though the whole edifice of her peaceful life collapses, the film ends on a surreally redemptive note -- a sign that in the ruins of the fallen tower, some people, at least can stand back up.
And where Gaspar Noe's films let darkness consume us, Van Trier's films shake the tower we're cowering in, until the structure starts to topple and lets in the first shafts of light.