Tag Archives: john hurt

Melancholia (2011)

9 Dec

Lars Von Trier is a provocateur in the grand tradition of European martinets; continuing the lineage of wilful creative tyrants who revelled in furthering their mythology, bridled against the restrictions imposed on them, posed awkward questions and relished the discord, disquiet and discomfort they created. While his comrades in the pseudo-movement that was Dogme ‘95 have floundered, Trier has managed to remain a vital, divisive figure. Love him or hate him, he’s an artist who continues to evolve. Winner of Best Film at this year’s European Film Awards, ‘Melancholia’ is disarmingly beautiful; displaying an elegance that Trier abandoned in favour of the studied harshness that characterized his Dogme films, and the Brechtian rigour of his as-yet-unfinished ‘America’ trilogy.

On the day of her wedding, ad copyrighter Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is in the throes of a full-scale manic episode, retreating to her room and struggling to maintain her thin veneer of composure. As Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), struggles to help her through this breakdown, Claire’s stentorian husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), is watching the skies in anticipation. A planet called Melancholia that had been previously been hidden behind the sun is due to pass by Earth; and though the scientific calculations confidently state that the planet will leave Earth unscathed on its journey, creeping doubts remains as Melancholia draws closer.

This existential disaster film features a bravura opening sequence: loaded with gloom and foreboding, it encompasses Resnais’ surrealism, Dreyer’s pictorialism and Kubrick’s epic scope to create a heady melding of celluloid depth and digital crispness. This effect, moving forward while cognizant of the past, is achieved with the help of Manuel Alberto Claro’s stunning cinematography, Jette Lehmann’s detailed production design and Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s stirring arrangements of Wagner. But Trier hasn’t totally jettisoned the stark neo-realism of old; he uses natural light and handheld cameras throughout to track events in the imposing mansion straight out of ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961).

For all his alleged misogyny, Trier treats his female characters with the utmost compassion; conversely, their male counterparts are callow, craven, pompous and overbearing. From Udo Kier as the comically highly-strung wedding planner, to Stellan Skarsgaard as Justine’s hard-nosed ad exec boss, to John Hurt as Justine’s raffish father, to Sutherland as the uptight social climber; they serve to embody the worst male traits, and their performances border on caricature when placed next to the complexity of Dunst and Gainsbourg’s contributions.

Like Hitchcock, Trier takes pleasure in putting the starlets of the day through the emotional ringer; working with Trier is an endurance test, a battle of wits that is a gateway to instant credibility if it works. Dunst is an actress in the process of transition; no longer able to portray the all-American girls with which she made her name, she must spread her wings or face an uncertain future. Dunst throws herself into the maelstrom of Justine’s mania, laying herself bare without recourse to overheated theatrics: in the context of Trier’s universe, performances work best when they are unadorned, and Dunst rises to the challenge with assurance and maturity. Charlotte Rampling, whose career trajectory provides the perfect model for Dunst, plays Justine’s iconoclastic mother with her usual poise, and Gainsbourg provides understated support to Dunst’s mercurial turn.

 The ‘doomsday writ small’ scenario is not a new one, but the majority of films that explore cataclysmic events from a single perspective or confined environment often feel like the story is subservient to the conceit. ‘Melancholia’, on the other hand, is a fully formed dramatic work, imbued with the Animistic spirit that first found its voice in ‘Antichrist’ (2009) and has much in common with Terrence Malick’s recent work, albeit laced with Trier’s usual sly humour and grandiose gestures. Trier deals with the subject unencumbered by mawkish sentiment, asserting that the prospect of impending doom won’t bring out the best in us, but serve to expose us for who we really are.

A warning issued by a Toronto cinema.

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