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Old 8th Nov 2011, 16:40   #1
Mookse
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Default Melancholia (2011)

Taking advantage of the video-on-demand option Magnolia offerred before the theatrical release, I watched Lars von Trier's Melancholia the other day. I'm perfectly aware that the cinema is the place to watch cinema, but with three young boys preventing my wife and me from any long outing (not to mention the fact that I couldn't in good consciense take my wife to a von Trier film without at least viewing it first) I realized that the odds I would watch Melancholia at the theater were 0.


melancholia-movie-poster by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

A few quick observations from my experience: (1) Melancholia relies heavily (some would say too heavily) on the "Prelude" to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, so if you don't have good sound you'll be missing something; (2) Melancholia is a crisp, highly stylized film that is best viewed in the highest definition possible or, again, you'll be missing something; (3) I am sympathetic to the idea that part of the experience of going to the cinema is being surprised next to a bunch of strangers, but that's a bit romantic to me since I watch most of the films I do in complete solitude, and that's a different but legitimate experience in and of itself.

That out of the way, here are some thoughts on what some are saying is von Trier's best film (again, some would say that's not saying much; others that it's astounding the best living director could continue to top himself).


Melancholia-Title by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

Simply put, this is a two-part film with a prologue. The prologue, a visual feat that in itself is a pretty remarkable bit of film, takes us through a series of intensely slow-motion surreal images. We see a mother struggling terribly to carry her son as her feet are sucked into the earth.


Melancholia-Montage-2 by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

There's a similar feel to the image of a bride struggling, rooted to the ground.


Melancholia-Montage-3 by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

And in a very formal image, the three characters each stand on an expansive lawn under three celestial objects: the sun, the moon, and the rogue planet Melancholia.


Melancholia-Montage-1 by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

Finally the prologue gives away the ending of the movie. Von Trier did this on purpose. He wanted his audience to consider the characters without being distracted by the suspense of not knowing what would happen to them. It worked for me.

Part 1 is entitled "Justine." Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who won the Best Acress Award at the Cannes Film for this film) is an up-and-coming advertising agent, and she's just gotten married. As the segment opens, she and her new husband Michael (Alexander SkarsgÄrd) are making their way to a lavish wedding party hosted by Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and paid for by Claire's exceedingly wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). John and Clair live in a fantastic mansion situated on lavish, open green lawns decorated with formal shrubbery (you can see some of it in the photo of the three characters above). When Justine arrives at the party (very late), she is bubbling and giddy, but we soon see it is merely her trying to will herself to be happy. The night goes on and on and on as the party continues to fall apart. It's not just Justine's fault. Her father (John Hurt) is openly flirting with every girl he sees. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a misanthrope and openly expresses her disdain to the marriage institution.


Melancholia-Dunst-Wedding-D by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

There is promise of a new life. Michael tries to comfort Justine by showing her a picture of a bunch of young apple trees, promising that someday they will put up a swing. She knows (as do we, considering the opening of the film) that that won't happen, even though her reasons are different from ours. She simply tells Michael, "We'll talk about that when the time comes."

Justine continues to disappoint people. Michael, who paid for it all, brings up the cost and says it's fine as long as she upholds her end of the deal: just be happy! Claire, who understands her sister a bit better, is still shocked that Justine seems to disregard just how much trouble Claire has gone to in order to build up this dream wedding for her -- if this doesn't make you feel good, what can? Meanwhile, the wedding planner (Udo Krier) refuses to look at Justine who, in his opinion, is not being a responsible bride.

This first part is very distressing; the emotional weight insinuates itself beneath the skin. Again, we know that the rogue planet Melancholia is approaching, but for nearly an hour it's completely absent from the script. Instead we focus on Justine's impending breakdown. Some of the characters walk on eggshells around her; others use wit as a barely visible veneer over cruelty. Despite the expansive lawn and the large rooms, it is claustrophobic.

Part 2 is entitled "Claire." It has been some time (not long, but enough) since the wedding night. Claire is taking care of Justine, who is no longer veiling her depression under a wedding dress and golden hair.


Melancholia-Dunst-Depressed by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

Significantly, Melancholia is moving close to earth. Claire is terrified. Gainsbourg plays this panic so well: we can clearly see that the terror is ever-present, but she's had to learn to move about through the day. What else can you do? If Melancholia hits the Earth, no amount of planning can help. There is no where to escape to. Worse, there is no way to protect her young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Her husband Michael is calm and collected, certain the scientists who are saying it will simply be a close fly-by are correct. He looks forward to the day it rises close and then proceeds into the distance at 60,000 miles per hour: "Melancholia is just going to pass right in front of us."

As the planet approaches, Claire gets more and more fragile. Justine, on the other hand, approaches the potential disaster calmly. Indeed, if all life is destroyed, "Nobody will miss it." She admits she knows we are alone here, so why look for false comfort? "Life is only on Earth. And not for long."


Melancholia-Close by Mookse and Gripes, on Flickr

I have to say this movie really moved me, though I understand what people consider its faults and certainly have no love for von Trier himself (he's immature and hateful) -- I certainly don't ascribe to his vision. But I don't have to in order to still find the expression interesting. It's not really a disaster movie, though when I first heard the premise I thought what is von Trier doing? But this is a very intimate (and probably deeply personal) movie about depression, sifted through the mind of a nihilistic misanthrope who most likely would not mourn if Earth were destroyed.

Still, there are problems.

1) The characters, though I thought fantastically acted, are fairly predictable. We know how they will respond to things, but for me that didn't prevent me from feeling moved when they did.

2) Some will certainly hate the overt stylization of the film. It's as glossy as they come, even when the sky is overcast and they're taking the horses out for a ride in the gloom. I didn't mind this and didn't see it as pretentious, though I can understand why people do. Couple the gloss with the "Prelude" soundtrack (which is repeated perhaps a few times too often, as lovely as it is), and we have a heightened sense of just how beautifully von Trier pictures the end of time.

3) Von Trier is obviously channelling other directors throughout. The pace and an explicit shot of Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow bring Tarkovsky to mind (it helps that I just watched Solaris earlier this year). The never-ending dinner party turned disaster has people saying it's a rip-off of Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (I never saw the movie, but I saw the play when it premiered in London); I see the connection but don't consider it a rip-off. Some say von Trier is also channelling Ingmar Bergman, which I think is an overstatement, though not many filmmakers so disturb my subconscious as to bedevil me with waking dreams from their movies and Bergman and, with this film, von Trier have both done that.

4) Some complain that these characters and nature itself don't act naturally. You don't say. It's true: if you're a stickler for film presenting physical reality, the approach of Melancholia will annoy you to no end. Since it's not about physical reality but about despair, this didn't bother me in the slightest. And while I do think the characters are predictable, and perhaps because of that a bit unrealistic, again I appreciated the expression more than I desired gritty realism. The film is aesthetized to no end, so don't expect it to look right -- perhaps, for some, though, it might feel right. One complaint here that I have to bring up because I found it to be a great strength is this: as doom approaches, the four characters (Justine, Claire, Michael, and Leo) stay at their home and there's no indication about how the rest of the world is reacting. There are no glorious shots of a crowded Times Square. There are no televised talk shows where the experts weigh-in. It's perhaps a bit unrealistic, but it sure makes the movie more intimate. On the one hand we have these glorious shots of cosmic space and celestial bodies, vast lawns and airy corridors (there is often a slight breeze blowing the characters' hair), yet the film is very very claustrophobic. As it should be. These characters have no where better to be. We don't need these other images to show terror when Gainsbourg is doing it so well while interacting with her unflappable husband, taking care of severely depressed sister, and looking at her young son.

5) Though the film doesn't go for shock as some of von Trier's past films, the glorification, through music (Wagner, no less) and imagery, of the end of days may offend some people. Von Trier has a nihilistic world view, that's certain. There's a certain purification by total destruction that we see here. But, again, I don't have to think this way in order to appreciate that a man (who cannot express himself publicly) can somehow do express something through film. I do think some of the analogies are obtuse, but these are overshadowed with the overall scope of the film's two parts.

All in all, then, though I'm not sure I've restabalized since watching it, I think Melancholia is a film worth watching, or, if you prefer, worth confronting.
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Old 9th Nov 2011, 21:11   #2
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

I stopped reading early to save myself from detail, but this looks like an interesting review. I'll certainly return as and when I see the actual film.
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Old 12th Nov 2011, 4:49   #3
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

Quote:
It's true: if you're a stickler for film presenting physical reality, the approach of Melancholia will annoy you to no end.
You know, it sort of did me, a little, for one shot, though it's an important one. I wish I could not care so much, but I can't help it. There was another way to do it that I believe would have been just as, or more, effective. Can't say more, though, what with the spoilers and whatnot.

Even so! , pretty easily. There is much that is fairly amazing about this film. And I don't find Von Trier hateful. I think he's probably all the other things you say, Mookse, but I think he is a man who suffers from genuine, clinical depression, and being a famous artist this part of his life sometimes spills out publicly. I would not choose to have dinner with Von Trier, but when you consider how completely the theme of depression factors into not just Melancholia but also Antichrist, his previous film, you, or anyway I, have to think "Well, he's not exactly out there kicking old women in the jaw." I think he's a fascinating director, by no means one whose work I love without reservation -- I flat out hate Dancer in the Dark, and thoroughly dislike Manderlay, for instance -- but one whose films are, at their best, as provocative and beautiful and painful as anything else you'd care to name.
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Old 12th Nov 2011, 15:33   #4
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

Quote:
Originally Posted by bill View Post
And I don't find Von Trier hateful. I think he's probably all the other things you say, Mookse, but I think he is a man who suffers from genuine, clinical depression, and being a famous artist this part of his life sometimes spills out publicly.
That is certainly fair, and I suspect you're correct. And good to find someone else who doesn't like Dancer in the Dark!

I'd love to get some more of your thoughts on this one, Bill, including which part bothered you. I couldn't help but think a few times, inexpertly but I'm pretty sure correctly, that things would never go down the way they did , especially the idea that a larger planet would swoop back towards Earth rather than pull Earth along with it and my suspicion that if a rougue planet were that close we would probably be dead well before impact, but in the end I didn't care. I'm curious if I would if I knew which part you were referring to.
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Old 12th Nov 2011, 16:29   #5
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

The part you put in the hidden spoiler section didn't bother me at all. That I could accept, even though no, it wouldn't happen. Within the world of Melancholia, though, that doesn't matter, and I was completely on board with that turn of events. What bothered me was the very last shot. The fact that we would see the curves of the planet as it was smashing into the Earth really bothered me. I felt that Melancholia should have filled the edges of the screen, at least. As it stands, the image looks...phony, or cheap, or goofy. Something to do with horizons or something. I don't know, I'm no expert, but I wish he'd found another way to depict that moment. But I feel like I'm maybe being too literal.

I still think it's a great film, regardless.
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Old 12th Nov 2011, 23:05   #6
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

Certainly not a moment in the film when one wants to suffer distractions!
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Old 2nd Feb 2012, 22:21   #7
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

I think I might be unduly wimpy, as I was not bothered by the final shots of the film since I was too busy snuffling and wiping my eyes.

A definite from me. I hope to put some thoughts down before they dissipate.
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Old 3rd Feb 2012, 9:52   #8
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

Mookse, I really appreciate your review above which says much about the mood and the outline of the film. I found it an extraordinary film to watch: it feels slow but not ponderous, with the inevitable approach of Melancholia swelling in the mind as the drama progresses. I don't quite agree that the foreknowledge of the end of the film helps you to focus elsewhere during - what it did for me was fill me with inescapable dread and sadness, which I am happy to consider was the intention. The astonishing prologue of stylized visuals, more saturated in colour and clarity than the rest of the film, is moving in itself, and the gradual reversal of roles between Claire and Justine, controlling and ceding control, was powerful in its development and conclusion. It was a film both surreal and human in its detail, and whilst I'm not knowledgeable enough on film or "influences", the wealth of images and resonances were tangible, from the obvious (Ophelia, Norse myth) to the more opaque (I'm sure there is symbolism in the use of The Hunters in the Snow and I can make vague conjurations in my head about this, which I hope is all the director ever expected). Some are more startling - Kirsten ('Justine') moon-bathing naked by a stream, like the moon-goddess Diana, as the elliptical path of Melancholia draws nearer. Justine forcefully expresses her nihilism initially in her stinging riposte to her boss at the wedding and later when addressing the distress and despair of her sister, and this is a hard message to watch, knowing that the film has arisen from Von Trier's own dark depression. Does he really think the world is nothing but full of evil and would never be missed? And how sad to posit this in the film without the sister, Claire, responding by communicating something of what she knows is good....however, the final scene possesses an inner core of love, of care, of kindness and consideration for others which speaks volumes against the obliterating mass of the planet about to engulf the characters and their world. The overwhelming end is all the more moving because of this.

I can't let it go without a couple of quibbles though: I love Kiefer Sutherland and his role as the brother-in-law John was fine in all respects until it came to the end of his part in the story, and I just didn't believe the play-out for his character was consistent with what we had been shown all through the film. And then the hail-storm: notwithstanding the attendant fear and despair in the mother's situation, being in a hailstorm like that is *painful* - I've I once walked children of Leo's age home from school in such a storm and they have been crying in pain from the impact of the hail and consequently trying to hide under my coat - so that scene, perhaps alone in a film of many dubiously weird scenes, was actually the most unbelievable for me.

I loved the whole thing (but I also love Dancer in the Dark, sorry, guys!)
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Old 4th Feb 2012, 18:22   #9
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

I'm not sure what I think about his use of The Hunters in the Snow. I think long shots of that painting in any movie are citing Solaris (certainly Von Trier had Tarkovsky in mind). But I think I get it's use in Solaris, which was a bit of earthly warmth from the past on a cold space station, or, rather, the representation of some kind of nostalgia or memory, a fabrication, however emotive.

But what is it here? I don't quite know. I like it in here because I like the painting, but it does make me wonder if von Trier is incorporate gravity by reference, though he doesn't need to in my opinion.

I'm sorry about Dancer in the Dark :). I felt he was to ham fisted in that one, and ham-fisted criticism of American society (or anything, really) doesn't do much (not that the criticism is unwarranted, but even valid criticism is subverted by this simplistic criticism). For me, that destroyed any human story and bolstered claims that Von Trier is immature, though crafty. But it's been years since I saw it, so I'm up to be proven wrong!
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Old 4th Feb 2012, 18:48   #10
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Default Re: Melancholia (2011)

I've not seen Solaris, so that is going on my LoveFilm list, along with more Von Trier (though my older daugher and I have agreed we won't watch Antichrist on our own - we suspect some company is needful to deflect some of the horror).
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