It’s dysfunction at the junction. Having showcased twin girls whose home is their prison (The Apple) and presented another teenager whose father is her, uh, destiny (I Stand Alone), not to mention the latest Woody Allen screed, the New York Film Festival plumbs the depths of Springerville with the spectacularly miserable families of Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Both, as their titles suggest, are comedies.
Solondz’s cinema of cruelty was introduced to the world with his 1996 indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse, a portrait of the tormented 12-year-old Dawn “Weiner Dog” Weiner, which not only offered the antidote to 40 years of domestic sitcoms, but remains the funniest, bleakest movie on the subject of suburban adolescence ever produced in this country. This shopping-mall Los Olvidados was not to every taste (The New Yorker declared it “hateful”), and Happiness, which has already strewn its share of psychological debris at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, is scarcely less splenetic.
His ambitions having grown, Solondz creates in Happiness a world of Weiner dogs. A portrait of an upper-middle-class, nominally Jewish extended family, this is the Hannah and Her Sisters that the Woodman might make today, with an expulsive assist from the Farrelly brothers. In descending order of success— and ascending order of likability— the three sisters are a self-hating, bitchy bestselling author (Lara Flynn Boyle), a smugly self-deluded suburban hausfrau (Cynthia Stevenson) married to a shrink on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Dylan Baker), and a pitifully optimistic loser whose name is Joy (Jane Adams).
Even more than in his previous film, Solondz’s style is clinical—if not pathological—in its lack of inflection. Every character is simultaneously the prisoner of desire and the victim of rejection. The mode is less black comedy than a particularly brutal and impassive mode of psychological slapstick. Joy’s restaurant breakup with a fellow passive-aggressive (Jon Lovitz) and her erotic misadventures with a rakish Russian cabdriver (a hilarious, stellar vaudeville turn by Jared Harris) provide the least painful yocks—it’s that kind of a movie.
Happiness is a relentless two hours and 20 minutes. As the misery mounts and the various trysts grow increasingly grotesque, the tormented father-son relationship that is the film’s heart of darkness coalesces into an agonizingly explicit confession and explication of sexual guilt. Parents are supposed to discuss this stuff with their children, aren’t they? Shot mainly in close-up, this man-to-boy dialogue is a scene that demands to be compared with Bibi Andersson’s once shocking orgy description in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. If Hollywood were truly devoted to telling it like it is, Baker would win a special Oscar. To add to the creepiness, Solondz is (as he made clear in Dollhouse) an extremely sensitive director of kids.
Where Welcome to the Dollhouse derived a certain charge from being borderline tasteless, Solondz desecrates Ozzie-and-Harriet suburbia in somewhat the same spirit in which Freud’s child patient Little Hans dreamt of smearing his mother’s pocketbook with mucus. (As Voice readers know, Happiness had to be dumped by its original distributor, October, when its parent [sic] company Universal objected to the movie’s alleged pedophilophilia.) Happiness may push gross-out pathos and ferocious geekiness too far in deconstructing the p.c. sex appeal of TV star Camryn Manheim, paired in masochistic misery with fellow tubster Philip Seymour Hoffman, but Solondz’s Swiftian sense of human sexual practice as absurd, messy, and ridiculous could not be more topical.
Awash as it is in bodily fluids, Happiness conspicuously lacks the milk of human kindness. But then, as Solondz demonstrated so forcefully in Welcome to the Dollhouse, persecution does not necessarily make for generosity.
The suburban domesticity of Happiness encompasses murder, rape, pedophilia, compulsive phone sex, free-floating humiliation, and syndromes which psychobabble has not yet named. The Celebration, in which Thomas Vinterberg presents one of the most disturbed Danish families this side of Elsinore, is a demented Rules of the Game with intimations of madness, incest, and suicide.
Solondz provides a democracy of despair, Vinterberg reminds us that the family is essentially a feudal institution. Gathering at their manor on the occasion of dad’s 60th birthday, three grown sibs—all haunted by one sister’s death and each wildly acting out—stage an extended domestic quarrel that escalates through insult, tantrum, and fistfights to the brink of patricide. Nothing is particularly subtle, although there’s a particularly chilling equation of the family and the nation when the clan closes ranks to serenade one daughter’s African American date with a rowdy racist drinking song.
Vinterberg, an associate of Lars Von Trier, orchestrates his ensemble with a gusto worthy of Robert Altman. The Celebration was impressively shot on Hi-8 video and successfully transferred to film; Vinterberg’s brain-jarring camera swoops, outrageous tilts, and eccentric angle, as well as his frantic crosscutting, help compensate for the somewhat hackneyed characterizations. Like Gaspar Noë’s more harrowing (and still distributor-less) I Stand Alone, The Celebration is basically a stunt—in this case, one that’s too self-congratulatory in its craziness to achieve much more than momentary impact.
A more focused critique of the family (among other things), Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Inheritors is a satiric and deeply antiauthoritarian reworking of a long-lived sentimental German genre—the heimatfilm or paean to the homeland. In this variant, set in rural Austria in the early 1930s, the seven newly masterless peasants of a murdered farmer have to learn to feed themselves.
Ruzowitzky’s sardonic, economical movie—whose German title is a neologism translating as “The One-Seventh Farmers”—doesn’t have much dialogue. Indeed, given the archaic feel, excellent sight gags, and spare Satie piano accompaniment, it could almost be a (very eccentric) silent film. The acting is skillfully broad, with the shrilly provocative Emmy (Sophie Rois) and goofy golden-boy Lukas (Simon Schwarz) particularly memorable as the peasants most active in their struggle against the intractably hostile “full” farmers who surround them.
To a far greater degree than the madcap families of Happiness and The Celebration, these unsentimentally simpleminded communards—ranging in age from child to crone—have a more complicated relationship to the surrounding society. Their haphazard organization harks back to the matriarchal, sexually promiscuous collective imagined by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of Private Property, the Family, and the State. Not only does each local custom (including “leisure”) have to be reinvented, their very presence is understood as a threat, sexual as well as economic, to the neighboring farmers who, predictably, mobilize religion against them.
Ruzowitzky is telling a timeless tale but his folkish faux innocence has a distinctly modernist backbeat. (In one privileged moment, the one-seventh farmers discover that they have inherited a gramophone complete with disc of Caruso’s “La donna è mobile.”) This Marxist comedy has an inevitably brutal denouement. The Inheritors may be overshadowed by the week’s other releases but there hasn’t been a sharper, funnier, more socially astute German-language import since the halcyon days of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.