THE YOUNG VICTORIA
starring Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson
screenplay by Julian Fellowes
directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
written and directed by Lars von Trier
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. As the beginning of an emotional history for Queen Victoria, Jean-Marc Vallée's The Young Victoria makes for an interesting bookend to John Madden's Mrs. Brown. A lavish, romantic depiction of the monarch's courtship with future husband Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), it's the very definition of a quotidian costume drama, skirting over the major issues of the early years of Victoria's reign to speak in broader terms about her idealism, the problems presented to her by her youth, and the manipulation of her affections by courtly politics. It's something like the older sister to Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette: less hip, but still in love with its naivety, its evergreen youth. It says something to me that in 2009, there's a film about Queen Victoria that's less interested in the stuffiness for which the Monarch is probably most popularly known than in her liberalism, her progressive attitude towards the humanism inspired by first the Colonies, then the French Revolution, then Britain's own Reform Act, enacted just five years before her coronation. An early film churned up in the wake of the optimism engendered by an Obama presidency? It's tempting to read it as such, not simply because you do hope this administration is better than the last, but also because, as the decade of the aughts draws a curtain on nine years of increasing outer and inner dark, there's at least the faint hope for some cloudbusting in the cinema, too.
At the start of the film, Victoria (Emily Blunt) is underage and battling attempts that would put her throne under hold to her mother the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her mother's lover, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), until her twenty-fifth birthday. This is her opportunity to display spunk. As King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) conspires for a greater hold on the English crown, he sends Prince Albert (Victoria's first cousin, as it happens) to try for her hand as King William IV (Jim Broadbent, stealing the show in less than five minutes) does his best not to die before Victoria's 18th birthday, thus allowing her to escape any further play for regency. The Young Victoria is ultimately not much more than a distillation of the myriad, horribly complex fits and starts at the nascence of the modern, democratic age in Great Britain into--and perhaps not inappropriately--a young girl's first blush of love and independence. Note a moment when Victoria finally gets to waltz with her blossoming beloved, how Vallée has her drawn, magically, in an amber light to the centre of the ballroom; or another moment, post-assassination attempt (the first of several for the young regent), in romantic slow-motion as Victoria sees the little girl's fantasy of the white knight to the rescue literalized. The conflicts of the picture involve her battles with an evil stepfather, a mother who doesn't understand her, and a long-distance relationship. The attraction of the film is dual: for men, it's Blunt's fetching rebellion in corsets and court manner; for women, it's this idea of rebellion and power in the midst of an essentially patriarchal system. Though The Young Victoria won't teach you anything, it's done well.
Lars von Trier's Antichrist, on the other hand, is both instructive and technically proficient--harrowing, it goes without saying, but undeniably brilliant in its reductive gender philosophies. (Often misinterpreted as opaque, they're truly anything but.) It's still surprising to me that people see von Trier as complicated when it's been his career dogma to aspire to simplicity. Beyond the literal application of that in his dogme work, there's the deconstruction of artifice in Zentropa, the simplification of fixed genre melodramatics in Dancer in the Dark, and the stripping of film construction in Dogville and Manderlay. See Antichrist as the sequel in theme to Breaking the Waves--further exploration of the sex drive as it manifests across gender lines. It's a beautiful film, if a difficult one to love, an adaptation in form of "Thanatopsis" that hears Nature speak with a forked tongue, its ultimate aim to hide the individual from the "sun" (the Miltonic "son," I'd clarify) to be reborn in its subterranean dank. There's nothing more essential than this literary division of the "right reason" of the masculine creative impulse from the chthonic chaos of the feminine creative impulse. The fascination of Antichrist is its desire to locate what role in that archetypal tension art plays, to unravel Thomas de Quincey's theories of the palimpsest of the human mind--that first blueprint for Freud's structure of the unconscious that suggests by its art that its only through man's creations that Nature can be understood. Blueprint, here, for cool, rational, dispassionate therapist He (Willem Dafoe) as he tries to guide his passionate, intensely active, irrational wife She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) through grief for a child killed because the two were fucking in a shower.
Drawn to a cabin in the woods they dubbed "Eden" in happier days, the couple are assaulted all their time indoors by the sound of acorns pelting the corrugated roof, which She at one point calls "the cry of all the things that are to die" (to which He responds rationally that "acorns don't cry"). The film resolves as an extrapolation of Ibsen's Little Eyolf--with its child lured to the sea by a "Rat-Wife" born wholly of irrational Nature--as told through the prism, perhaps, of Bergman's similarly invasive freak-out Persona. Nature is properly identified as a Romanticist construction of "Satan's Church"--a metaphor without rancour, a Blakean idea that Milton's God is passive while Milton's Satan is not, so that by extension, the positive state of fallen man is indicated by his activity and the negative state (the impossible state) by passive spectatorship.1 As their time in the woods telescopes and they're pulled more deeply into the wet and decay of cyclical, feminine creation (She reaches into a womb-like hollow and declares herself healed), comes a moment at the very beginning of the final act when His progressive series of animal avatar visions reveals a fox eating itself and declaring that "chaos reigns." Next, in a downpour, He discovers a cache of diaries detailing the persecution of women for their sexuality (and you could argue that women are really only ever persecuted for their sexuality)--a foreshadowing of the film's final sequence that, because of its finality and not in spite of it, speaks to this surety that a man's recourse is rationality and that rationality cannot suffer irrationality.2 The pictures He finds are culled from research conducted by She for her academic explorations sometime in the un-recounted past--and She identifies, in the film's most controversial sequence, that nature is evil and, since women are embodiments of a literary idea of Nature, women are therefore evil.
She wants him to hit her as evidence of his love when, thematically, She means that the way men and women express themselves eternally is through violence and terms like consummation that denote possession--just as her identification of herself as "evil" has more to do with the dichotomy of his cool analysis and her hot action. Antichrist is the closest von Trier has gotten to the textbooking of Godard: this tireless, meticulous exploration of the essence of what it is to be human in terms dispassionate, detached, and juxtaposed against images that are at the very least provocative. She beats his penis, then masturbates it to bloody ejaculation; She drills an anchor into his leg and attaches a millstone to him3; She performs a clitorectomy on herself with scissors; and then He fulfills his masculine role, birthed whole from an earthen womb and resigning not-immortal, but endlessly recycling Nature to its final fulfillment, a continuation of the cycle of birth/rebirth, in fire from his hand. Antichrist is impossibly rich and clockwork in its consistence of theme and image. If it were a book, its margins would be full of notes. Famously created as a means of von Trier addressing his own crippling depression (and, as famously, a failure as such), it has the filmmaker as masculine creator incapable of escaping the extreme limitations of his hand in conjuring the mysteries of the irrational, presenting as near an evocation as he's capable of the unbridgeable chasm between how we learn and what we can't unlearn. It's a masterpiece painted in broad strokes--an idea that the only way through is through the obliteration of the animal and, should even that fail (as death and the rational have failed before it), the only release is despair.
To bring the conversation full circle, The Young Victoria, what with its absolute innocence and celebration of sex and the human experience (with only minor out-roads to how gender attitudes colour every aspect of the body politic), is not a bad metaphor for the essential difference between the art and literature of the Victorian Era and the British Romanticists it supplants. Meanwhile, there's a freedom in Antichrist that is utterly liberating; watching these films in tandem sets the equivalent of running wild, naked, in some bohemian fantasy of the Lake District against the tightly-restrained propriety of Buckingham Palace and its carefully balustraded libido. (The recurrent image of The Young Victoria is gates closing on a woman who declares herself, more than once, a prisoner.) Vallée makes much of "The Kensington Rules" as the formative thing against which Victoria rails for what we presume is the balance of her reign, while Von Trier demonstrates the fallout from life freed from civilized stricture. It's through that explosive wallow of Antichrist's Id (in opposition to the Son/Sun, if you will) that one is reminded, starkly, of the volcanic peril that defines every sexual relationship. Originally published: December 4, 2009.
1. Blake goes so far as to admiringly identify Milton as "a true poet of the devil's party." return
2. He tells her at one point, "Of all the thoughts that provoke your fear, yours is rational thinking." return
3. Evocation of both Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" and its sexual perversion and chamber horror--as well as that story's concern with the different values attributed to learned, and unlearned, knowledge. return