Cornerhouse LiveWire Critic James Martin reviews Melancholia
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 the distance. 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 (note: this isn’t a spoiler – for the audience, it is explained from five minutes into the film 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!
Cornerhouse Usher and Project Assistant Chris Daniels review Melancholia
An overtly expensive wedding for a privileged family and pampered guests who are oblivious to the looming threats of the world outside their own bubble. Is it another royal wedding? No, it’s Danish director Lars von Trier’s latest film Melancholia.
Whatever you make of Von Trier, he has successfully made a career as a provocateur, be that re-writing cinematic conventions with the Dogme ‘95 manifesto, breaking taboo content in The Idiots, or reportedly driving Bjork to eat her own clothes out of frustration on the set of Dancer in the Dark. Some of his films I personally love (try Dogville for a savagely pointed moral parable) and some of his films I hate (I found Dancer in the Dark and Antichrist both farcical in their attempts at emotional manipulation), but he’s undoubtedly a director who I follow, and I enjoyed this ode to depression and successful willing of the end of the world in Melancholia.
In the first ten minutes we are shown the results of a surprise apocalypse by a previously hidden planet crashing into Earth in a sequence that is perhaps his most visually successful work to date. In this, he references the similarly isolated settings of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, John Everett Millais’ painting The Death of Ophelia, Pieter Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow and maybe even the video artist Bill Viola.
The serendipity of its premiere alongside Terence Malick’s Tree of Life at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year is interesting, as they each offer polar opposite attitudes to life on earth. The awestruck wonder of the mother character in Malick’s film enthused us to “love every leaf, every ray of light” whilst Kirsten Dunst, playing the gloomy bride Justine, tells us “all life on earth is evil” and stands nonplussed as it literally crashes around her.
It is the surrendered and apathetic Justine and her sister, the anxious and tightly wound Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsborg), who carry the weight of the family melodrama for the bulk of the film. Both actresses are excellent and continue the long line of strong performances Von Trier has demanded from his female leads.
Admittedly, your enjoyment may rest on your ability to stay with such priveliged and predominantly unlikeable characters for just over two hours and while I found comedy in the secondary characters, some are unnecessary – particularly Stellen Skarsgard’s character as the worst best man ever.
Von Trier presents us with a dream house full of vacuous rooms and characters so dependent on service that a main portent of doom for them is that the butler doesn’t turn up for work! Von Trier seemingly asks us to find humanity’s worth within this stifled environment, which he deliberately doesn’t make easy. You may be wishing for the end to come quickly but I was surprised to have enjoyed this apocalypse as much as I did.
“Enjoy it while it lasts”.