CIFF Diary: Day 1 - It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I feel...like Lars Von Trier hates us)

10/7 -  I can't say I was particularly energized after the 4  1/2 hour trip from Michigan, but I'm sorry to report that the second half of the first film of my CIFF journey, Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, nearly put me to sleep.  Until, of course, Von Trier spitefully, almost comically, cranked up the volume on the film score to "11" in a seemingly deliberate attempt to wake  up the entire packed house of the AMC River East 21, in what seemed like a nearly unprecedented bit of technical tomfoolery. So, was it the car ride, or was it the movie?  Damning a film for being "slow" is not really my thing, but, dammit, the second "tych" of Von Trier's new "diptych"  is a slog that makes you wonder if the rather remarkable achievements of the first half were even worth it.

Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
Allow me to backtrack:  the opening of Melancholia may stand as one of the most sumptuous and breathtaking moments of the entire CIFF, but the film as a whole may simultaneously stand as one of the most hated.  Of course, Von Trier's contempt for humanity has been a much talked about subject as of late, but forget his Cannes ramblings about the Nazi party--the real contempt may be found right in his latest film.  The aspects of Melancholia that are successful range form the spot-on performances of Kirsten Dunst, Keifer Sutherland (maybe his best performance?), and Alexander Skarsgard to the breathtaking opening montage, which evokes the stylistic imagery of advertising culture, a world that Dunst's character, we later learn, is employed in.  The supporting cast is fantastic, featuring Von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, and, in a particularly hilarious turn, Udo Kier.  The problem with Melancholia is that within the first 90 minutes or so of the film there lies a perfectly fine new Von Trier entry--gorgeous visually and playfully subversive in it's depiction of a filthy rich wedding reception that, character by character, reveals with elegant pacing the dysfunction underneath the dressed-up surfaces, evoking, in it's finest moments, the Renoir masterwork The Rules of the Game.  And, oh yeah, the world might end due to a planet called Melancholia that is headed right for us.

Melancholia (the planet) in Melancholia (the movie).
Then, we get to part II:  "Claire."  Claire is the wound-tight sister to Dunst's character, Justine, and is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was also featured in Von Trier's last film, Antichrist, and who is very good in both pictures.  Unfortunately, she gets featured in the half of the film that doesn't work, and that also begins to reveal Von Trier's truly snide ugliness as a filmmaker.  I won't say cynicism, because I don't think cynicism is necessarily a bad thing, and there may be those that read Von Trier's finale in Melancholia as a compassionate gesture in the face of hopelessness by Justine.  Also, Von Trier may be playing some Godard-ian games with pacing, which is a major issue for a good forty minutes of the film, but if that's the case, as with a few of the lesser Godard experiments, I don't want to play.  Melancholia is one of those rare examples of a film that has such tremendous tension between what is unforgettable about it and what is entirely resentful, and often just sloppy, that I've kind of been living in critical limbo with it since the screening.  It certainly has tended to eclipse other films in conversation, although I think the picture that followed on my opening night, although much smaller in scope, may have been more successful in what it set out to achieve...

Up next:  Rabies


Jason Hedrick said...
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nathaniel drake carlson said...

Watched this On Demand so I undoubtedly missed some of the more subtle cinematic effects as well as the less subtle but more effective ones, like being bludgeoned into submission by the sound in that final reel. Having said that, I am more or less in agreement with you here. I fall somewhere in the middle on this one, though leaning heavily toward the negative.

I disagree with you on a number of counts though. I actually found the majority of the first half to be a slog. The performances are okay but the revelations seem pro forma, especially coming from someone like Trier. Actually, by this point, it seems more should be expected from him. Formally it's better. The aesthetics are great, of course, and some interesting things could be said about what transpires inside the mansion vs. outside, for instance. But overall I was not compelled.

The second half held more interest for me generally, though I would certainly admit that it does not entirely work and the film as a whole, while admirably ambitious in certain respects, comes across on a first viewing as a failure. Still, I don't read the contempt and scorn in it that you do. I think that argument is better reserved for Dogville, insofar as that one more flagrantly seems to welcome the accusation. Here there is a certain self-loathing obvious with Dunst's character, of course, and that does seep into the rest but, when he is capable, Trier is able to recognize that for what it is--an emanation or projection of her character's sensibility, not necessarily the film's mission statement.

I would have much preferred that the whole picture was about Gainsbourg's character and that Dunst had been relegated to a sort of supporting role as broadly sketched chorus. This is because Claire is by far more nuanced and dare-I-say-it "human" in the range of her reactions (the stretch from the discovery in the stables at the end to her deciding to make breakfast is a good indication of it). Putting that up against the possible extremes represented by Dunst and Sutherland would have been a constructive strategy. Here, though, because of what is hard to dismiss as Trier's own overly sympathetic association with Justine, the balance is unduly skewed. Every time we get a compelling, insightful moment of recognizably human behavior in the face of such an absurdly imminent threat he can't help but let the air out by over emphasizing Justine's reactions, despite her obvious afflictions, as ultimately the more "realistic" in comparison to Claire and her husband. I guess that's his idea of irony. He simply can't resist any chance to denounce or dismantle societal constructs or rituals as mere flimsy ports against the storm and therefore by consequence meaningless too I guess we're supposed to assume.

I didn't appreciate (as I didn't in Antichrist) Trier's glib and rather insipid treatment of Scientific Rationalism either. I'm generally the last person who would defend that so the perverse position I'm in goes to show you something is wrong. And what's wrong is that he wants to frame that, in both films, in a kind of broadly reductive sense (which, to be fair, I can see the allure of). Rather than slamming rationalism as altogether worthless and false (which comes across as a juvenile "You're gonna die anyway, man!" kind of move to me) what he should be emphasizing is its potential to be hubristic and that that is where the danger lies. He does that anyway I guess but it's not clear that he understands the distinction or that there is one. He's too enamored of the idea of conceiving it purely in terms of its control function and placing it in broad opposition to "chaos" as represented by his female characters. So, instead of a mature reading of chaos itself as potentiality (which is what Lynch would do) we get simplistic, reductive negativism because it suits Trier's personal biases and his overall romanticization of finitude.

Jason Hedrick said...

Interesting that we had almost inverse reactions to this, because I find the arc he travels from that essential limo scene through the gradual, brilliantly played unraveling of the ceremony to be the heart of the film. I understand your reading of Gainsbourg's character, and I understand that when the film focuses on her in the second half, we are challenged in an interesting way to realign our reading of the film's themes. Still, I felt a great connection to the subversive tactics Trier takes in the first half, and when the humor and pacing are drained from the proceedings in the second half, I checked out.

I like your comparison to Lynch here, who never comes off as reductive or simplistic in the way Trier does, even in his bleakest moments. I think the same can be said for the other apocalyptic narrative we've discussed recently, Tarr's "Turin Horse."

And, just so you know, the final auditory onslaught as experienced in the theatre is overbearing, hateful, and somewhat silly, in retrospect.

With all this said, it is maybe the film I discussed the most with various attendees at the CIFF, which is to the film's credit. In all of those discussions, I always had to make it explicit that, even though I'm not on board with von Trier here, that they should experience it, because it is a failure worth spending some critical energy on--in that sense, a success.

for the love of tampa said...

I saw it earlier this week with Michael - beautiful film, yes. But I had a very difficult time taking any of it as literal. My mind could only understand the film as a very long metaphor for the impact of psychotic depression...or melancholia.

Jason Hedrick said...

"For the love of tampa": one of my favorite things as a sometimes myopic film guy is the opportunity to read films like this across different fields of expertise. If I can out you (in the heavily trafficked message boards of Ecstatic!) as someone who is a professional in this field, I'm curious if you thought "Melancholia" was a useful or insightful elaboration on that kind of severe or psychotic depression? Did you see it as effective, in that sense?

J. Hedrick said...