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Peleshyan vs. Von Trier

Two directors take on agony and ecstasy – but it's often impossible to tell the difference between them.

December 5, 2017  |  by Karen Avetisyan

At the turn of the last century, as Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier was conquering the great heights of European cinema, one of the quiet giants of documentary film, Artavazd Peleshyan, was creating his final film upon the ashes of the Soviet Union.

 

Their two works The End (the prologue of Antichrist) and Life absolutely contradict each other, as their names would suggest, yet their similarities are remarkable.

 

To begin with, the central character is the same in both films – the baby who dies in one case, and the baby who is born in the other. And their use of music, too. In the visions of both filmmakers, the music does not serve as background or accompaniment to the story, but rather as the story itself. The music and the script are of equal force, while the editing is driven more by the tempo of melody than by rhythm of words.

Both filmmakers enjoy every drop of rain – under a strong shower or upon a falling bottle or while bathing a newborn in slow-motion. They are slowed down to the pace that Verdi or Handel require. The musical theme of the prologue of Antichrist is Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa – a soprano aria from Handel's Almira opera. It is an ironic baroque composition that reaches at inner loneliness, and connects so precisely to the theme of the film: "May my sorrow shatter these chains."

Chained also is Peleshyan's mother –shackled to a chair in anxious anticipation of childbirth. It's not the sorrow of loss that is going to shatter her torment in this case, but rather the delight of birth. The sounds of music work together with the women's screams – in one case from labor pains, in the other case from convulsions of orgasm.

In both cases, physiology is elevated into an aesthetic, transforming the setting of the film into an anatomical theatre, where the convulsions of women anticipate the coming terror – or the coming joy.

 

The musical and aesthetic parallels, however, take the two directors to different biblical shores. Von Trier ends up in his favorite playground – the valley of human sin and existential chaos, while Peleshyan returns to the end of his favorite tunnel.

 

There, under a ray of light, a mother embraces her newborn and becomes a Madonna.  

 

P.S. Von Trier made his Antichrist in 2009, Peleshyan shot Life in 1993. Both films, it seems, had been foreshadowed by French poet Jacques Prévert:

White sheets in a closet

Red sheets on a bed

A child in its mother

The mother in agony

The father in the hallway

The hallway in the house

The house in the town

The town in the night

Death in a cry

And the child in life.

AUTHOR

Karen Avetisyan studied linguistics and intercultural communications at the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University, Yerevan. Film critic, radio host, columnist and cultural reviewer at Sputnik Armenia international news agency and radio, author of articles, art and culture programs, film reviews. Member of Armenian Association of Film Critics and Cinema Journalist.