Monday, December 12, 2011


     This Is the Way the World Ends, 
               with a Whimper, then a Bang (a Very Big Bang)
                     Review by Ken Burke
Despite the apocalyptic plot, this isn’t nearly as emotionally raw as most of von Trier’s work and could easily be the best film of 2011, with sublime ideas and subdued performances.
    Lars von Trier may be the most melancholy Dane since Hamlet.  His films are often extremely challenging for audiences to sit through, either because they’re emotionally excruciating (Breaking the Waves, 1996; Dancer in the Dark, 2000) or, for some viewers, just repulsive (Dogville, 2003; Manderlay, 2005; Antichrist, 2009).  With his latest release, Melancholia, he may still be unwatchable for those who’d more likely prefer Hugo or Warhorse, but for me he’s created an experience that transforms what should be sheer terror into a sublime exploration of the very essence of our existence.  I admired Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in a similar manner this year, but Malick was so abstract in his presentation (despite offering some of 2011’s most spectacular cinematography) that you could tune it out even while being temporarily absorbed.  With Melancholia the images are just as striking, the concept is just as immense, but the impact is a constant resonance of awakening, producing an awareness that can lead to the sense of a secular Nirvana.

     The opening collage of virtually still images (not really a montage because they don’t explore one action from a variety of angles or take you rapidly through a series of understood relations of locations and events) are superb just as compellingly composed photographs, but in a manner like the expository newsreel in Citizen Kane they prepare you for what’s to come without giving any of the context needed to fully understand them upon first viewing.  If you’ve got time to hang around the snack bar long enough to catch the start of the next showing I recommend doing so because once you know what each of these stunning shots refers to in the film you’ll really appreciate seeing them again, for content as well as form. (Yeah, yeah, why not just wait for the DVD?  But I’ll take any opportunity to encourage you to see Melancholia as often as you can on a really big screen in a theatre auditorium.) 

One major puzzle you might be left with after this opening five-minute prelude is whether the devastating collision of the planet Melancholia into our own Earth is literal or metaphorical: why would von Trier want to begin by answering the biggest question the characters and the audience have to face for the next two hours?  But when the plot gives you reason to think that the seeming opening/finale was just a confounding teaser you become just as relieved, then distraught, as Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, the other embodiment of melancholia in the film.  Like her, you want to believe that the danger has passed, that the thought of our imminent demise is really just an opportunity to dump our emotional baggage in life’s storeroom and celebrate a new beginning.  But also like her, you finally have to accept that the prelude was an elusive but deadly plot summary after all, that just as she and her family have been living on borrowed time until their inevitable end so has our encounter with the film’s 136 minutes been an opportunity to expand time in response to a tragic curtain-raising event we’d hoped to deny.
              This concept has been explored long before in “Twilight Zone”-like manner in such tales as Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (read it if you like at which presents the extended fantasies of a Civil War soldier who thinks he’s escaped hanging, then returns home only to learn that it’s all a prolonged fantasy that the mind indulges in within a time frame unrelated to our clocks before the noose does snap his neck (among the many adaptations is an 1962 Oscar-winning French short film which was broadcast on the actual “The Twilight Zone” TV series in 1964).  Similarly, Uma Thurman’s Diana in The Life Before Her Eyes (Vadim Perelman, 2007) thinks she’s survived a high school shooting spree and grown to troubled adulthood in her increasingly uncomfortable hometown, only to understand at the last second of consciousness that she was a teenage homicide victim after all and her whole adult “life” was merely a complex mental construction.  The characters in Melancholia have no such extended pre-death fantasies; if anything, their lives just grind to a halt as their fate finally engulfs them.  But for us in the movie house, at least in retrospect when we know that the end of this film is truly the end of our Earth (with some reassurance coming when the theatre is still there after the blinding final shot), we’re reconfirmed in what we feared from the beginning, that a celestial neighbor might not pass us by as actually happened just a few weeks ago with a large meteor or that no astronaut cowboys are going to rescue us as in Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) but that an unstoppable doom—our natural death—is our reality and what we’re seeing in the rest of the film is just a well-produced, well-acted projection of some created characters whose sad lives are a projection of our own scripts as we face the shattering of our existential mirrors and confront our personal finalities, even where no cosmic fear is present.  

   I’m not saying that von Trier intended his plot giveaway of interplanetary destruction and the ensuing story to have been intended as such an “Owl Creek Bridge” performance piece for the audience rather than a film about the star-crossed lives of his Melancholia characters, but I do think that the narrative structure allows for such an interpretation, that in addition to the despair of Justine and Claire presented on screen that we are given the opportunity to align this with our own despair that our lives are terminal at some yet unknown point and we may just be deluding ourselves with mental projections of better alternatives, at least until we take better command of these projections—and our irreversible fates, as does Justine in her more serene presence in the film’s second act—and give meaning to our actual lives where we never know when our limited timeline will cease.  Yes, I’m possibly triangulating quite a bit from von Trier’s trajectory with the film, but given his well-known personal dark moods and humors (if there’s any intended humor at all in his films and several anti-social public statements) I think he’s always trying to generate trauma in his audiences as well as depicting the traumas of his on-screen characters as a means of forcing us to become equal subjects with the members of the film’s ensemble—in a manner reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman, the cinematic master of humanity’s dark days and nights of the soul.  Certainly Bergman is subtler, more cerebral than von Trier, whose Expressionism-influenced cacophonies are normally screams compared to Bergman’s existential shudders, but in Melancholia this Dane has followed the example of his Scandinavian forerunner to great success.
To present such exquisite sadness, fear, and ultimately the benign acceptance of overwhelming fate required masterful control of acting, image, and sound, which is what von Trier delivers.  Dunst as depressed, essentially bipolar bride Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as seemingly serene sister Claire are marvelous in their complete possession of their characters, not only as we initially meet them at Justine’s overwhelmingly lavish wedding reception but also as they shift in degrees of self-control and social stability as we go from act one’s focus on the former to act two’s presentation of the deterioration of the latter.  This is certainly a more cerebral (yet deeply emotional) experience than the leads’ inversions in Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), but I find some similarity in these films’ depth exploration of their female characters and the way in which we find awareness of the unexpected weaknesses and admiration for the unexpected strengths in all of them.
Just as Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were justifiably two of the five contenders for Best Actress at their Oscar ceremony (but losing to Jodie Foster for Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dunst and Gainsbourg in the top five this year (Dunst already triumphed at Cannes, just as Gainsbourg did two years ago for Antichrist; Melancholia’s powerhouses may also strike out in Hollywood, though, given the likely competition from Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Viola Davis, among others).   Further, Charlotte Rampling is no slouch herself as Gaby, the bitter, estranged mother of the two sisters, and John Hurt as their drunken, lecherous father, Dexter, brings some well-needed comic relief.  The sisters’ husbands play their supporting roles in excellent fashion as well, with Justine’s groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) as a loving would-be spouse who finally has more than he can tolerate from both his bride and her fully dysfunctional family while Kiefer Sutherland has the meatier role as Claire’s wealthy, put-upon, and improperly confident husband, John.  I suppose any of them could merit Oscar Supporting player consideration, but I think the top-billed women are the more likely contenders, although von Trier might pull off a surprise with a nomination for Best Director or even Best Original Screenplay.

I also expect to see this film in contention for various American critics’ awards (as it has been already in New York) but wins seem more likely across the Atlantic, as with the European Film Awards where it triumphed for Best Film as well as Best Cinematographer (Manuel Alberto Claro) and Best Production Designer (Jette Lehmann).  These technical wizards might earn nominations in various American venues as well, along with the soundtrack team responsible for the haunting music throughout the film.

As with Citizen Kane (my all-time, five-star favorite, if you haven't figured that out by now--see below for more on this topic--so stay prepared for constant comparisons) we know from the opening shots of the film (done here not with Welles’ constant tracking and various cinematic flourishes but instead with radiant still or slowly moving images) that the main character—which, arguably, alternates between Justine and Claire—is in a state of all-encompassing crisis (admit it, impending death is hard to trump as a plot device).  However, that foreknowledge, even if we deny it for as long as possible, doesn’t prevent us from probing into the depths of our troubled characters, at least as far as we are able to.  We never know for sure why Michael becomes so overcome and irresponsible when the deadly planet seems to reverse course and head right for us after all; we’re not quite sure if Justine has gained strength in her time of coming termination or if she’s just relieved of the burden of living within her depressive emotional confinement; we don’t know if Claire’s increasing weakness is from a situation that no longer maintains a façade that allowed her to present herself as not afflicted with her sister’s ills—for that matter we never really understand why Charles Foster Kane is incapable of renouncing the self-inflicted failures that undermine his unique privileges and potential.  But in all these cases the films’ structures and executions are so meticulously rendered that we’re willing to keep probing as best we can into the haunted attics of human identity, even if the only end we can attain is a “No Trespassing” sign or a terminal cosmic catastrophe.

One last note on my maiden voyage in reviewing for this site is why I’m so effusive over Melancholia but give it only four of my available five stars.  The simple answer is that I’m a star miser (sounds like something that should be eaten with red cabbage and a big stein of beer), very hesitant to give the coveted five to something that can’t match up to the favorites I’ve noted in the Profile or even others that fall just below that level such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) or a good number of Scorsese triumphs like The Departed (2006).  It’s hard to get five stars out of me for anything that doesn’t fully come up to those levels so four is my usual high, but I’ll admit that Melancholia is a strong consideration that might move up upon further reflection.

If you're interested in exploring Melancholia in more depth, here are links to the official film site, a couple of YouTube trailers, and the Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritics, and Movie Review Intelligence responses:

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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