Melancholia, a commentary

Melancholia
sffs directed by Lars von Trier November 2011
SFFS members are invited to a free member-only preview screening of Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Keifer Sutherland. Melancholia is a psychological disaster film from director Lars von Trier.

Lars von Trier’s work that I have seen:
In 2000, von Trier premiered a musical featuring Icelandic musician Björk, Dancer in the Dark. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
He then directed two films in his announced ‘U.S. trilogy’: Dogville (2003), starring Nicole Kidman
In 2006, von Trier released a Danish-language comedy film, The Boss of it All.
Von Trier’s latest work is Melancholia, a psychological disaster drama;[26] shot between 22 July and 8 September 2010 at Film i Väst’s studios in Trollhättan, Sweden,[27] and with exteriors in the area surrounding the Tjolöholm Castle

About the film: In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth…

MY TAKE – When we left the theater Carol and I remarked to one another how excruciatingly long and slow that film was… seemingly hours of Claire dragging around that child and Justine wandering around that golf course. And yet we both thought that parts were beautiful and the acting of the main characters was brilliant.
Mick LaSalle’s review was in the Chronicle the next day. He had the little man sitting straight up, expressionless, which means GOOD.
(Full reviews at the end of this)

He starts —

If only Lars von Trier took into account that audiences might actually want to enjoy “Melancholia,” rather than endure it, or sift through it, or submit to the director’s will, he might have made something extraordinary. The film’s arresting concept, its deeply felt understanding of depression, and its glossy and surreal cinematography — like a Magritte painting — could have been the ingredients of a masterpiece.

and concludes with —

At this point, you might be wondering why, in a middling review, I’ve concentrated only on the good. (In fact, I haven’t the space to talk about all the strengths of “Melancholia”; for example, Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg’s sardonic husband or Charlotte Rampling as Dunst’s and Gainsbourg’s vicious mother.) The reason is that all the virtues of “Melancholia” are original and interesting.?Meanwhile, its flaws are so typical and pedestrian that it’s difficult to sound intelligent mentioning them.?But it must be said: “Melancholia” is grindingly slow and endless, with scenes that go nowhere and long, long stretches of directorial indulgence. There is almost no tension and barely enough story to carry it to feature length, much less 2¼ hours.

Carol and I totally agreed. But then, I went and found Roger Ebert’s review, on line. He gave it 3 1/2 stars (out of 4). What’s up with that?

Ebert had a more universal take, if you will:

Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” opens with music from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” mourning and apocalyptic, and disturbing images of a world not right.
As time begins to run, we meet a newlywed couple being driven to their wedding party at a grand estate. It is a small gathering, only large enough to establish that few in this family can abide one another, and some may be mad.
Not much of an attempt is made to fashion these people into a plot anything like a wedding party you’ve seen in a movie before… there is no sense of intrigue, just a desperate acting out. Every moment is saturated with the common knowledge that Earth is about to collide with an enormous planet named Melancholia.
If I were choosing a director to make a film about the end of the world, von Trier the gloomy Dane might be my first choice. The only other name that comes to mind is Werner Herzog’s. Both understand that at such a time silly little romantic subplots take on a vast irrelevance. Doctor Johnson told Boswell: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” In the cast of von Trier’s characters, impending doom seems to have created a mental state of dazed detachment. They continue to act as if their personal concerns have the slightest relevance. Von Trier has never made a more realistic domestic drama, depicting a family that is dysfunctional not in crazy ways but in ways showing a defiant streak of intelligent individualism.

So, Eric called Sunday evening and asked if we had seen any good movies lately. Carol and I were talking all over one another trying to describe something that neither of us knew how to describe. We cited the reviews, as well as an interview with Kiefer Sutherland that appeared in that day’s Chronicle: He said that after 3 decades in the business, he thought he knew something about acting, but —

Until that inaugural morning on set when von Trier led him and Gainsbourg to a door and told them to walk through and start the scene.??“I realize we’re not going to block it, we’re not going to rehearse it, he’s just going to shoot it. I panicked,” he recalls. “Once I surrendered to that, there was an unbelievable freedom to it. What it did for me is it did deconstruct everything I knew about what I’m used to doing as an actor. I was so busy trying to kind of figure out between Charlotte and I in the middle of making the scene, trying to hit the points I thought were important, I became completely unaware of where the camera was, never saw it, actually. I was in a moment and that was a huge education for me.”

Eric says, “You gotta get that on to Rectorsite. So here we are.

Do I recommend that you see Melancholia?
If I knew then what I know now, would I still attend the free screening? I would definitely take me some nibbles and water, but you couldn’t keep me away.

Here are the full reviews and the story on Kiefer Sutherland:

‘Melancholia’ gets trapped in its despair
By Mick LaSalle CHRONICLE MOVIE CRITIC

If only Lars von Trier took into account that audiences might actually want to enjoy “Melancholia,” rather than endure it, or sift through it, or submit to the director’s will, he might have made something extraordinary. The film’s arresting concept, its deeply felt understanding of depression, and its glossy and surreal cinematography — like a Magritte painting — could have been the ingredients of a masterpiece.

There is also von Trier’s ability to inspire or wrest from his actors their best work, even in movies that don’t deserve such dedication. As a woman suffering from a depression that she can mask but never shake, Kirsten Dunst is subtle and vivid, radiant and tormented, and impossible not to watch. As was apparent in last year’s “All Good Things” and is clear from the films she has made that are awaiting release, Dunst has decided to pursue the career of a serious actress. No misplaced vanity or affectation here — she really is one.

From the beginning, we see something odd in her; we’re just not sure what. Justine (Dunst) shows up at her own wedding reception two hours late, bubbly and laughing, and proceeds to do strange things. She leaves the party and goes for a long walk. When she should be cutting the cake, she is off taking a bath. The social pressure of maintaining a happy facade is too much to bear.

The science fiction element of “Melancholia” is that there is a rogue planet scheduled to pass uncomfortably close to the earth. The planet, named Melancholia, is the movie’s metaphor for an emotional state that can stay hidden for years and then arrive, huge and undeniable, with the capacity to annihilate everything. In terms of the story, it also replicates one of the insidious aspects of depression, that it can feel like heightened perception.??Just the existence of Melancholia confirms Justine’s view of the universe.

The first half of “Melancholia” focuses on Justine. The second half concentrates on Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the older, level-headed sister, though, because Claire is the family caretaker, Justine is also a major presence in the second half. If Justine has trained herself to hide her misery, Claire has learned to hide her vulnerability, but Gainsbourg shows us all the same. She will probably be nominated for an Academy Award, and so will Dunst, or at least they should be.??At this point, you might be wondering why, in a middling review, I’ve concentrated only on the good. (In fact, I haven’t the space to talk about all the strengths of “Melancholia”; for example, Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg’s sardonic husband or Charlotte Rampling as Dunst’s and Gainsbourg’s vicious mother.) The reason is that all the virtues of “Melancholia” are original and interesting.

Meanwhile, its flaws are so typical and pedestrian that it’s difficult to sound intelligent mentioning them.

But it must be said: “Melancholia” is grindingly slow and endless, with scenes that go nowhere and long, long stretches of directorial indulgence. There is almost no tension and barely enough story to carry it to feature length, much less 2¼ hours.

What’s that steady buzzing noise? It’s the sound of other audience members snoring.??Halfway through, you may wish the planet would come crashing into the wedding. Long before the end, you might wish the planet would come crashing through the theater.

E-mail Mick LaSalle at mlasalle@sfchronicle.com.

Melancholia
BY ROGER EBERT / November 9, 2011
Cast & Credits
Justine Kirsten Dunst
Claire Charlotte Gainsbourg
Michael Alexander Skarsgard
John Kiefer Sutherland
Tim Brady Corbet
Gaby Charlotte Rampling
Dexter John Hurt
Jack Stellan Skarsgard
Udo Kier Wedding Planner

Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. Running time: 135 minutes. Rated R (for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language).

Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” opens with music from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” mourning and apocalyptic, and disturbing images of a world not right. A woman dressed as a bride runs through a forest whose branches seem to grab at her in a Disney nightmare. She floats in a pond, holding flowers, like Ophelia. Another woman makes her way with a child over marshy grass that sucks at her. Looming in the sky is another planet, vast in size. The Earth is about to end.
These scenes are isolated prologue. As time begins to run, we meet a newlywed couple being driven to their wedding party at a grand estate. It is a small gathering, only large enough to establish that few in this family can abide one another, and some may be mad. The bride is Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Her husband is Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Her sister is Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Their estranged parents are Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and Dexter (John Hurt). The mansion is owned by the brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Joining the party is Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), Justine’s boss, who owns an ad agency and is attending primarily to wrest an advertising tagline from her. The wedding planner is played by the ominous Udo Kier, who you will agree is correctly cast to run a wedding at the end of the world.

Not much of an attempt is made to fashion these people into a plot anything like a wedding party you’ve seen in a movie before. Even when the bride steals out of her husband’s bed to have rough sex in the sand trap of a golf course, there is no sense of intrigue, just a desperate acting out. Every moment is saturated with the common knowledge that Earth is about to collide with an enormous planet named Melancholia. I’m not sure if the planet has been officially named, or if the name simply attached itself. One thinks of Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, which marshaled all the arts and sciences known to him into a study of what we could call clinical depression.

The new planet is first seen by Justine as they pause on their way to the party. It is the brightest of the evening stars. During an undefined period of days it will grow larger and larger, until it fills the sky. Curiously, the characters do not spend all of their time talking about it, and we pick up little information about when it was first seen. Von Trier limits himself entirely to the meandering conversations at the house party. He avoids all the usual sci-fi cliches; there are no TV news updates, no Cabinet meetings, no nuclear rockets fired at it, no surging mobs in the streets. It looms larger. It “appeared from behind the sun.”

If I were choosing a director to make a film about the end of the world, von Trier the gloomy Dane might be my first choice. The only other name that comes to mind is Werner Herzog’s. Both understand that at such a time silly little romantic subplots take on a vast irrelevance. Doctor Johnson told Boswell: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” In the cast of von Trier’s characters, impending doom seems to have created a mental state of dazed detachment. They continue to act as if their personal concerns have the slightest relevance. Von Trier has never made a more realistic domestic drama, depicting a family that is dysfunctional not in crazy ways but in ways showing a defiant streak of intelligent individualism.

The film is divided into two halves, titled “Justine” and “Claire.” It appears that the two sisters exchange personalities, but to no great effect. Maybe the approach of an overwhelming event has dissolved the membranes of personalities. Notice how Jack, the ad man, continues to place importance on his ad slogan. And how Gaby lashes out at the very notion of a wedding or a party. There is displacement here that is frightening.

In any film involving the destruction of the globe, we know that, if it is not to be saved, there must be a “money shot” depicting the actual cataclysm. I doubt any could do better than von Trier does here. There are no tidal waves. No animals fleeing through burning forests. No skyscrapers falling. None of that easy stuff. No, there is simply a character standing on a hill and staring straight at the impending doom, as von Trier shows it happening in what logically must be slow motion, with a fearsome preliminary merging of planetary atmospheres.

Violent death is often a shabby business in the movies. It happens in depressing bedrooms, bloody bathtubs, shattered cars, bleak alleys. Its victims are cast down empty of life. Here is a character who says, I see it coming, I will face it, I will not turn away, I will observe it as long as my eyes and my mind still function. Is it fair of me to speculate that von Trier himself regards death in that way? He tends to be grandiose, but if one cannot be grandiose in imagining one’s own death, then when is grandiosity justified??Based in part on a blog entry written from the Toronto International Film Festival.

MOVIES
Jack Bauer visits the odd world of Lars von Trier

By Pam Grady

SPECIAL TO THE CHRONICLE

A wedding scene dominates the first part of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic drama “Melancholia.” A stellar collection of actors takes part in it: Kirsten Dunst as the stunning but troubled bride; Alexander Skarsgard as the dashing groom; Stellan Skarsgard as the bride’s ad man boss; Udo Kier as the increasingly put-upon wedding planner; Charlotte Rampling as the flamboyantly embittered mother of the bride; John Hurt as the bride’s sot of a father; Charlotte Gainsbourg as her settled, married sister; and Kiefer Sutherland as her filthy-rich brother-in-law and the man paying for the lavish reception.

“For the actor, it was the ultimate nightmare experience, because it was one of the first things we shot and everybody just wanted to be Lars’ favorite,” laughs Sutherland, enjoying a visit to his hometown, Toronto, where “Melancholia” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“He just kept calling, ‘Action.’ It was like, ‘What the f— are we doing? What page are we on?’ But they were really great days.

People were really loose. That was the one sequence where I watched about eight unbelievable actors all feel like extras that didn’t know what the f— they were doing, and Lars liked that a lot.”

An intense presence on the screen and on television, where he fought terrorists for eight seasons as federal agent Jack Bauer on “24,” in person Sutherland is a warm, affable presence. Those are the qualities he brings to his character in “Melancholia.” The man may be a master of the universe who boorishly goes on about how much he spent on his sister-in-law Justine’s wedding and can be awful to the servants, but he is also a good husband and father to his young son. And as the world teeters on the brink, he responds with optimistic certainty that the worst will never happen, in contrast to Justine, who is just as sure the end is here.

Arrogance of the man

“I think this film is about Lars,” says Sutherland. “He believes that my character represents 98 percent of the population — and this is the arrogance of man — that thinks we can control our destiny and look at a planet that is coming straight at us and go, ‘It’s not going to hit us, because how could it do that to me?’ And Kirsten’s character represents the 2 percent part of the population that is still kind of harmoniously in touch with earth and is sensitive enough and struggles with the feeling of this impending doom. And that would be Lars.

“The two of us realized we were the perfect match for this, because I was very happy to represent the 98 percent of the people that had hope and Lars was very happy to be the 2 percent of like, ‘The f— sky is falling!’ ” he adds, chuckling.

Sutherland was in the last season of “24” when he got a crash course on the collected works of Lars von Trier. The television show at that point left him feeling as if he were in a vacuum, and he was searching for something new. A friend of his, a huge von Trier fan, heard about “Melancholia” and thought he would be perfect for it, but first she had to immerse her pal in von Trier’s universe.

“As an actor, I probably wasn’t as familiar with Lars’ work as I probably should have been,” he admits. “She educated me very quickly.”??The actor was struck by von Trier’s visual style and a collection of films he found heartbreaking and moving. But what intrigued him most was the way the director used his various casts, as over and over actors whose work he knew well surprised him with their performances in von Trier’s universe.

“That made me go, ‘Why? I wonder what he does to them to make them approach this role in a very different way.’ I was very curious about that,” he says.

Three decades in showbiz

In traveling to Sweden to make “Melancholia,” he got his answer on the very first day of shooting. At age 44, Sutherland has appeared in some 80 movies and television shows since making his debut at 16 in the 1983 Neil Simon comedy “Max Dugan Returns,” including 195 episodes of “24.” After three decades in the business, he thought he knew everything there was to know about acting in front of a camera.??“There’s one constant in every job I’ve every done, which is you get to work in the morning, you read it through with the other actors, the director or you and the director block it out, you rehearse it and you shoot it. That constant has never been broken,” he says.

Until that inaugural morning on set when von Trier led him and Gainsbourg to a door and told them to walk through and start the scene.

“I realize we’re not going to block it, we’re not going to rehearse it, he’s just going to shoot it. I panicked,” he recalls. “Once I surrendered to that, there was an unbelievable freedom to it. What it did for me is it did deconstruct everything I knew about what I’m used to doing as an actor. I was so busy trying to kind of figure out between Charlotte and I in the middle of making the scene, trying to hit the points I thought were important, I became completely unaware of where the camera was, never saw it, actually. I was in a moment and that was a huge education for me.”

One of Sutherland’s favorite memories from his days with von Trier was an encounter with John Hurt during the wedding sequence. Sutherland was passing him with drinks in hand, while Hurt was waltzing with the twins that his character had brought to the reception as his dates.

“As I went past, John looked at me and went, ‘I’ve got no idea what I’m doing,’ ” he chuckles.

“Lars hadn’t directed any of us and it was just a f— yard sale. There was that kind of atmosphere about it.

“When we met over Skype, Lars just made me laugh and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll have a run at this,’ ” he adds.

“I think the script was maybe 60 pages long at this point, half Danish, half English, so it was a real leap of faith, and it was kind of one of the best leaps I’ve made. I loved working with him. He has a special place in my heart.”

Pam Grady is a freelance writer. E-mail her at pink letters@sfchronicle.com.

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2 thoughts on “Melancholia, a commentary

  1. The NYTimes review commented that the first 15 minutes were incredibly beautiful and mesmerizing, and made up for the somewhat plodding but brilliantly acted film. Huh? Anyway, I saw the trailer last night (w/our film club to see Amovodar’s The Skin We Live In…simply brilliant!). I am a fan of Lars Van Trier, and have moved the film up in my list. Your review helps it as well. Thanks!

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  2. I finally took the time to read all these reviews and clips, and OK…you’ve convinced me. Actually, that’s not true. The fact that I am a HUGE von Trier fan (OMG…I could watch Dogville over and over…and have!), combined with the really intriguing reviews, combined with the trailer I saw Monday nite at the SKIN screening, convinced me to put it on my short list. To add to your recap, here is the NewYorker review (interestingly, combined with Tower Heist…) http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2011/11/07/111107crci_cinema_lane?currentPage=all

    I had better get Kelly a little high first…not sure she can endure 2+ hours of Lars art…

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