Melancholia 2011 Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Screening at UK cinemas.
Warning: Earth shattering spoilers ensue!
Melancholia is, quite simply, one of the most visually beautiful films of 2011.
It’s no surprise to me in the slightest, though I’ve only seen a few of his films, that Von Trier can deliver such beautiful and meticulous work... but to people who associate him with the Dogme ‘95 movement, the sheer artificial beauty of his creations may come as a bit of a surprise. But like I said... not to me.
I first became aware of Von Trier back in 1991 (wow, I’ve been watching this guy on and off for 20 years?) when I went to the old Lumiere cinema in St. Martin’s Lane to see his brilliant movie Europa (aka Zentropa in some countries). It was the first film I remember seeing which relly wallowed in it’s own artificial construction to create elaborate effects on screen. The first movie I could remember, specifically, barring minor moments like a single shot in Rumblefish, where both colour and black & white photography collided on screen in beautifully surreal moments where they would bleed into each other’s separate elements like a mixed media collage. And when I say bleed, it really did in certain scenes... I remember well, one character slashing his wrists into a bowl of water in black and white and the blood flowing into the water as a bright red element.
Backgrounds could be changed too like an old 50's Hollywood rear projection shot... except here the technique was almost flawless and a character could be interacting in a real environment which could suddenly turn into a visual metaphor in the background.
It came as a bit of a shock, I would have to say, when Von Trier founded the Dogme ‘95 group with their pledge to remove pretty much all artificality from film. This never stood well with me and I was quite vocal at the time because it’s pretty obvious to me that you can’t make a movie without at least lighting or tweaking or positioning some element of a shot... the very act of which surely renders void the entire exercise in the first place. It was not that unexpected when even the first film that came out of the gate of this experimental style broke it’s own rules and many followed suit (is my understanding) in this lack of rigidity to contribute to a pretty much impossible, idealistic concept.
I remember seeing Von Trier’s Dogville (and getting bored about a half of the way through the movie), a film clearly named after the manifesto of its creator, and thinking to myself that the act of stripping down a whole community to invisible rooms marked out with white lines and labels was far more artifical in its nature than just filming in such a community could ever be.
I got back into Von Trier when his last movie, Antichrist, came out and thought this movie was pretty okay and it certainly shares the same sheer visual beauty as his new movie Melancholia... so he’s definitely back into a new phase of his work, now free to embrace the artifice of his craft once more.
Melancholia starts off with some surreal and occasionally confusing imagery... some of which I believe is based on a group of paintings that one of the two lead protagonists, Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) puts out on display in one of her “funny spells”. Definitely spotted a nod to that Pre-Raphaelite painting of the girl in the lake which was responsible for the death of the model (no, I’m sorry, I don’t remember the name of this famous painting). The other main protagonist, her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), has some very heavy footsteps in a field in this sequence which remind me of another painting, the title of which also escapes me (Not doing very well on the art front am I? Sorry people). After some 5 or 10 minutes of beautiful imagery, the earth is destroyed as it collides with another planet and, all through the film we are encouraged to assume that this is how the movie will end (although the giveaway clue here is Dunst seen in two different dresses). After the title card immediately following the destruction of the earth, the film is then split into two parts seemingly set before the events just depicted have taken place...each part named after their central characters. The first part deals with Justine who is going to her own wedding reception at claire’s mansion house. Over the course of this fairly gruelling sequence (if, like me, you are not a social animal) we see her wreck both her marriage and her career in an uncomfortable haze of aggressive depression, possibly manifested by the newly discovered planet Melancholia which appears to be on a collision course with earth, in front of a whole host of big name supporting cast (such as Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skaarsgard and even Claire’s husband played by Kiefer Sutherland).
The second part, named after Claire, is set some time after (a few months perhaps) when Justine is so depressed she can’t even get out of bed without major coaxing by her sister (yeah, did this stuff remind me big time of my ex-girlfriend) and tells of Claire’s fear of her belief that the earth will be pulverised by Melancholia, her husband’s certainty that it won’t and, their son who is getting as excited as his dad by this rare astronomical discovery. It also shows Justine in sharp contrast still to her sister, with whom she doesn’t share much in common. However, it also becomes apparent that Justine can see things that are going to happen and she believes Melancholia will be the death of them all (even when it seems to be receding) and is not frightened by it but is happy to embrace the peace that death will bring to her.
It has to be said at this point that nothing really happens in terms of story (except for, you know, the destruction of the entire planet). It is a beautifully framed and never boring study of the thoughts and actions of two diametrically opposed sisters who are anticipating the approaching end of the world. In this way, it perhaps shares a commonality with Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice or Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear (aka Record Of A Living Being) but the film is very much its own thing and is an absolute joy to watch... although be warned it is quite bleak in some ways.
If I had one complaint about the film in general it’s that we didn’t need to see the destruction of the world at the end... we know it’s inevitable, leave it unsaid and end the movie half a day before it occurs maybe? However, having said that, the shot of the death of the world at the end does elaborate the point that the imagery at the start of the film was actually nothing more than a visionary “premonition of events” by Justine and not a fixed point we’ve flashed back too... there are clues in the dialogue which may lead you to this conclusion that the opening is not actually a flashback but something else entirely... but the end shot certainly leaves no doubt in the mind of the viewer about the nature of the movie’s prologue.
As I’ve implied, I would have expected and liked to have seen a more ambiguous ending to this movie in terms of the sometimes surreal opening montage, but maybe I just prefer less clarity and room to speculate with works like this. And, anyway, Kirsten Dunst does have scenes where she takes her clothes off... so that more than outweighs the slight dissatisfaction with the last minute or two of the movie.
Don’t miss Melancholia. A beautiful film made by an artist with a sure, steady and confident hand as befitting the longevity of his career. It probably won’t be playing for long so catch this visual magic while it’s still playing on the big screen!