What can we make of Lars von Trier? I recently rewatched his earlier film, Breaking The Waves, and thought to myself that the man who made that beautiful, tragic masterpiece couldn’t possibly be the same man who made those blitheringly stupid comments at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Many film critics have questioned his films – dismissing them as superficial and fundamentally insincere. Should he be taken seriously?
I think so. All things considered, we should be judging the movies, not the man (although a gag would be useful from time to time). More so here than in any other film he has made, Lars Von Trier has cemented his reputation as one of the most visionary, original directors working today. He has calmed down since his last schlock horror Antichrist– and here we have a film of breathtaking visual beauty, its plot mimicking that of a bizarre contemporary opera, portraying nothing less than the end of the world.
The film, I have to stress again, is one of the most visually stunning we will see all year. From the opening scene, Von Trier’s defiantly arty tastes shine through in a montage of slow motion sequences, inspired straight from disquieting masterpieces in both the art world (‘Ophelia’ springs to mind) and in the realms of cinema as well (it feels uncanny that only a few weeks after seeing Last Year in Marienbad, such a direct reference is made to the movie – who can mistake that garden with the perfectly geometric trees?). There is a scene early on in which Justine – the main character – opens art books at certain pages and leaves them lying out so that we can see the works in thedistance. At times, in that prologue, you can imagine that these works have sprung to life in an aptly mesmerizing fashion.
In Part Two of the film, as the inevitable apocalypse draws closer, and nature begins to turn on itself, we are left dumbfounded by some of the images he conjures up, building up in intensity until the very last scene, as the planet Meloncholia finally collides with Earth (NB: this isn’t a spoiler – as an audience, it is explained from five minutes in that this is going to happen). But what a gut wrenching, deliriously intense crescendo he pulls out of the bag. The cinematography and the accompanying soundtrack are masterful.
After a delightfully mysterious, breathtakingly opulent prologue, we are greeted with Part One of Two – named ‘Justine’ – after Kirsten Dunst’s character. Justine has just got married to Michael, and they are making their way up to a castle (belonging to Justine’s sister Claire – played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) for the reception in a white limousine – a vehicle notoriously difficult to manoeuvre round sharp bends. This opening scene is disarming. There are comic touches. The couple are happy – aren’t they?
Well – see for yourself. Part One deals almost exclusively with the couple’s wedding night, and the disastrous reception party. Von Trier makes the most of his location – whether it be the vast interior of the castle or the sprawling golf course outside, bathed in artificial yellow light. It becomes apparent through a series of strange, beautifully handled sequences that Justine is in fact depressed and mentally ill, scarred by her parents’ failed marriage and their present behaviour (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling have some of the best lines in the film).
Part Two – the longer of the two sections – belongs to Justine’s sister Claire. Of course, much has been made of Kirsten Dunst’s performance (for which she won the Best Actress Award at Cannes), but I would say that she is unquestionably outshone by Gainsbourg here – who, as ever, is incredible. Her character is the most sympathetic – not only does she have to juggle her mentally ill sister with a somewhat unsympathetic husband (played by Kiefer Sutherland – who would have thought he would ever star in a Von Trier picture?), but also with the increasing anxiety that the planet Melancholia is going to collide with Earth in a matter of days. Justine comes to stay with her sister for those final days, leading up to the apocalypse, and what ensues is nothing short of fascinating. The planet itself is seen in shots that could be paused, and the stills put up in an art gallery – the disquietingly erotic scene in which Justine wanders to the river bank and lies naked, bathed in the light bouncing off the planet in the middle of the night – will be engrained on your memory long after leaving the cinema.
Of course, there are flaws. Von Trier himself has even stated that he may have made a film he didn’t like with Melancholia. However, his reason is that the film is too polished for his liking. That isn’t the problem for me; his script is the main flaw. At times, it feels horribly like a first draft. As ever with Von Trier, he raises a lot of points and incorporates many themes (the evil of human existence – as dealt with in his previous film Antichrist – crops up here yet again) – but very few are explored to any significant depth. The most successful exploration of a theme here is Justine’s depression – which is handled marvellously. However, watching the film with a pinch of salt certainly wouldn’t hurt.
That said, I for one was blown away by the film’s originality. It is a mad, maddening, bizarre melodrama, and perhaps it is indeed pretentious – but watching it is like gazing at an exquisite work of art in motion. Two films this year have explored the cosmos and it’s relation to us as human beings (The Tree of Life is the other). In some respects, these two films shouldn’t even be compared – The Tree of Life is the far better film of the two in any case, and definitely deserved the Palme D’Or. But it is interesting to see the variation on a theme – one film a devastatingly beautiful, honest, humble exploration of human existence and the other – a manipulative, shamelessly gaudy and depressing slice of operatic tragedy. But Melancholia, in its own, unique way, is stunning; years from now, I have no doubt it will be considered a masterpiece. Until then, suffice it to say that this is the best film that Lars von Trier has made in a long time. Let’s hope this is the start of a trend!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (October ’11)
We’ve already been presented with some impressive philosophical film-making this year in the form of the aesthetically stunning Tree of Life. However, ‘l’enfant de terrible’ of cinema ‘Lars von Trier’ has graced us with his mania once more and painted a film so visually mind blowing and jaw droppingly gorgeous you could almost forgive him for his pessimistic attitude of life and existence.
Melancholia‘s premise is simple. Justine (Kristen Dunst) is about to marry the love of her life Michael (Alexandar Skarsgard) in a chateau located in an isolated region, the wedding reception is lavish and decadent, all being paid for by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). As the wedding draws to a close Justine notices a star in the sky, which is actually a planet known as ‘Melancholia’ that will pass in front of the Earth in 5 days.
Based on aesthetic delights alone Melancholia ranks not only in this year’s best (easily surpassing Malick’s visionary work) but the best in the past few years. Shots are masterfully framed and shot in such a lavish manner you can see Trier has spent a lot of time and creative energy mastering his vision and actualizing in order for it to work on screen. The opening sequence is the perfect example of this; between the emotionless mug shots and the hyper slow motion it easily ranks in some of the most bold, innovative and tense film making out there. You’ll feel a slow sense of dread creep up your spine from the first frame and it refuses to leave your body til its knuckle crushing finale.
Whilst I’m singing its praises, I would just like to state that a performance as compelling as the one Dunst delivers isn’t just extraordinarily rare but just extraordinary in every sense of the word. Dunst speaks volumes with minimal dialogue, her body actions are beautifully choreographed and her ominous words have a sort of bitter chill to them. When she’s speaking on screen, regardless of what visual master-class is taking place around her you’ll find it impossible to draw your eyes from her.
Alas, Melancholia could have transcended into the realms of prodigious film making if it wasn’t so grounded by its sheer concept. There’s something incredibly life draining and in some sequences boring about Melancholia. If Trier had put as much effort into keeping the film moving at an interesting pace as he has done with the visual Melancholia would already be my film of the year. Sadly he hasn’t, pacing and plot feels almost like additions that hinder the film instead of complimenting it. The film feels longer than 130 minutes and that’s saying something. There are minutes, not moments, of pure monotonous drudgery that feel like sequences padded out in order to flaunt the visuals a bit more. The film could have done with a severe trimming session, easily cutting 20 to 30 minutes off its run time.
Visually Melancholia is otherworldly, romantic like the works of Coleridge; you feel like you’ve experienced something truly profound. Dunst’s performance is something that will haunt my mind for months to come and will surely put her as front runner for ‘Best Actress’ at award ceremonies to come. It’s a shame everything is so anchored down not only by its own self importance and narcissism but the lack of any remote sort of pace. Poetic and woeful; it acts as the ‘Yin’ to the Tree of Life‘s ‘Yang’.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, Jay Crosbie (October ’11)
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