Friday, December 30, 2011

Melancholia (2011)

This is your brain on Melancholia.

     I'm not a fan of the films of Lars Von Trier. There. I said it. He is an amazingly talented artist with an absolute command of the visual language of cinema. I "get" it. I know that it's "cool" to like his films because of his use of symbolism, manipulation of the conventional narrative, and knack for conveying abstract emotions in an understandable way. I just can't get past his pacing. His films are so methodical and so well conceived that they feel three times as long as they actually are. It's like watching a top surgeon performing brain surgery. You see what he's doing, you understand it, you appreciate the complexity of his movements, you know that every motion will lead to something larger. It also takes goddamned forever. On top of this, you have the fact that every single one of Von Trier's films are excruciatingly dark and depressing. I simply don't enjoy witnessing the death of a human soul for what seems like six hours. With all of this said, and without contradicting a word of what you've just read, I honestly think Melancholia is among his better efforts and may even be his most widely accessible film to date.
     Melancholia starts off with (what feels like) a 20 minute montage of tableaux picturing the end of the world. Actually, they aren't tableaux so much as hyper slow motion images captured with a Phantom camera. These images are intriguing and totally engrossing. You are made aware, right off the bat, that this movie will end with the destruction of the planet. Naturally, you would assume the rest of the film would be a chronicle of the main characters' final days. A narrative that slowly builds to the inevitable moment of annihilation. This is essentially what transpires, albeit in the most glacially-paced, abstract, and hollow ways possible.
     Melancholia is broken into two separate parts. Each segment focuses on a different main character and set of emotions while keeping roughly the same cast of characters and setting. Part one, entitled: Justine, focuses on Kirsten Dunst's character. As the segment starts, we learn that Justine has just been married and she and her new husband are on the way to their reception. We also quickly learn that Justine is in a state of abject depression. As she mills aimlessly around the party, in and out of brief conversations with odd characters, you keep waiting for some kind of plot thread to appear and start unraveling the story that will eventually end in Earth's demise. This never happens. The entire first half of this film is essentially plot-less, frustratingly drawn out, and pointlessly weird.
     Part two is titled: Claire. Claire is Justine's sister. They are very dissimilar. Claire is scared that Melancholia, the quickly approaching rogue planet, will collide with and destroy Earth. Otherwise, Claire is a fairly normal and well-adjusted person. She lives in the lap of luxury with her loving husband and son. Justine, now nearly catatonic, comes to stay with them in the days leading up to Melancholia's arrival. This segment is where the meat of the plot and character interaction takes place (what little there is to begin with). Claire also gives a sense of meaning and purpose to the otherwise entirely alien goings on of Justine. The juxtaposition of these two halves is necessary for both to make sense. In other words: If Justine is a depiction of a character engulfed in inner turmoil and depression trying to deal with a "normal" situation, then Claire is a depiction of normalcy when thrown into a state of chaos and despair. This contrast is the core of the film. This is what will drive conversation and thought about Melancholia.
     Thinking of Melancholia purely as a work of art rather than plot-driven, narrative cinema, makes it much more palatable. Von Trier has created a visually magnificent work that conveys the feeling of melancholy in a completely understandable manner. You feel drained and empty after watching the film. It is undeniably thought-provoking. However, you don't feel satisfied. It doesn't really work as cinema. It is an incredibly uneven film that you have to work at to understand. For every moment of clarity in what is happening on screen, you get ten minutes of completely unnecessary garbage. You're never really moved to sift through this garbage because you don't care about the characters anyway...which, I guess is fine because they don't go anywhere or have anything to do in the first place. It's because of this lack of character development that I can't understand the accolades that Kirsten Dunst is getting for her performance. Her performance is nothing more than her simply not reacting to the things happening around her. It isn't the acting, dialogue, or plot that makes this movie ooze melancholy. As I said before, it the collision of the two beautifully photographed halves of the film that makes it interesting. Just planting the basic idea of the film in the filmgoer's mind and then photographing a brief representation of that idea in action is enough to spawn conversation. The opening montage is easily the best part of the film and sums it up pretty well.
     Here is my best attempt to corral these ramblings and convey my thoughts on this film: It is a strong idea and the emotion linked to the idea is conveyed well. It is beautifully photographed. It is extremely self-indulgent. It is unevenly paced. It is poorly written. It is frustratingly pretentious. It is a film by Lars Von Trier. I don't even know how to grade this. I've been thinking about this film regularly for the past week. It succeeded in that respect. The more I think about it and the more time that passes since I've seen it, the more I think I like it. It takes a long time to separate the wheat from the chaff. I think I'm liking it more because because I'm forgetting about the 90% of the film that was sleep-inducing drivel and dwelling on the 10% of the film that worked. As a short film, Melancholia would have a devastating impact. As a feature, it's more of a near-miss.

   The Good, The Bad, and The Extreme Close-Up

     Reqieum For a Dream is a hard film to watch, but is also one that demands to be seen. It made me realize that  movies can are capable of hitting you on a visceral level. It tells the stories of three people already at rock bottom. You quickly become aware of what these people want most in life; what they believe will pull them out of the gutter. Then hope is introduced. Maybe they have found "it". Maybe their lives will take a swing for the better. Suddenly the bottom drops out and they fall even farther than they were before. It is the introduction of hope that rips out your insides. This movie is why I will always be on-board with the next Darren Aronofsky film. If you want to feel sucker punched by a movie, you need to watch this.
     Lars Von Trier has always been a director with no fear of trying something new or different. Whether or not this is a good thing has yet to be proven, as his *cough* finest *cough* achievements have been his films made with a more traditional approach. When he made Dogville, I was intrigued by the idea of a "black box" film. The film has very minimalist staging and set dressing. It's mostly white outlines on a black floor that say "House", or something to that effect. It's a novel idea that helps to focus the audience more on the acting and story than on the visual aspects of the film. Cool. Every now and then different can be nice. Then came Manderlay. Manderlay is a movie that shouldn't be used here since I didn't even finish watching it...but this is also an argument for why it should be used here. Apparently the shine of this "new wave" of filming had worn off. It was a dreadful experience. Who knew that film, as a medium, relied so heavily on visual stimulus? Hmmm.
     The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Dreyer is the shining star that Von Trier constant struggles to reach. He is so obviously influenced by both Dreyer and the film that it seeps from every pore of his work. This is the original "Hey, let's see a chick forced into a situation that breaks her spirit and makes her all sad and weird!" style film that Von Trier keeps cranking out. It is the story of Joan of Arc's imprisonment, torture, trial, and execution. Dreyer focuses the camera almost exclusively at the faces of his actors. Every subtle tear, wimper, and grimace on Joan's face is front and center throughout the film. It is a perfect and haunting portrayal of inner pain and anguish. It is a triumph of cinema, but something you will likely never want to see more than once.


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