The World is Not Enough: Review for Melancholia

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It’s the end of the world and Lars von Trier knows it. He probably relishes the apocalyptic notion, but the Danish provocateur’s newest film Melancholia is an operatic opus that manages to illicit a grand feeling of nausea, hopelessness, and, of course, melancholy. Von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, was more graphic, but what Melancholia lacks in graphic sex and organ mutilation, it makes up for in sheer atmosphere and tone.

The film is divided into two parts, each named for the respective sister it focuses on. The first part focuses on Justine, played ethereally by Kirsten Dunst in her best role in years, a woman who has just gotten married and is doing what nearly everyone does to some extent: wearing a mask. Her sparkling façade is done only to please her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), her distant and frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes for Antichrist), and her edgy brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Behind that mask of lies, she’s a mess. And it seems that she’s been a mess for a while. In the posh castle where her wedding party is being held, as she loses her grip, domestic chaos ensues, slowly marring the entirety of not only the wedding but of her life. This is, of course, representative of how depression can ruin one’s life so easily.

In the second half, dedicated to Claire, the end of the world is coming in the form of a fly-by planet called Melancholia. While Claire and her scientist husband become more and more worried, Justine remains serene, her pessimism and cynicism being completely manifested in the form of complete calmness. Claire breaks down; she is unable to handle the stress, but the strained relationship between the two sisters actually becomes stronger. Estranged though they may be, and as cynical as Justine, through her depressing, has become, this unified sense of doom brings the two together.

If you’ve seen any of the other films that the Danish auteur has made, perhaps most scarringly Antichrist, von Trier relishes suffering. He wants to make the audience suffer just as much as the characters he creates. This isn’t for pure maliciousness, but to accentuate drama and emotion, to place the audience in the situation of the characters on the screen.

Melancholia is driven by its stunning performance by Kirsten Dunst. Having made a strong debut as a questionably happy teenager in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, the depressing subject matter of Melancholia is nothing new for the actress. It is a brave performance, one where we see Dunst at her most vulnerable, probably that we’ve ever seen of an actress on the silver screen (von Trier has a way of getting his actresses to become completely naked on the screen, in more than one way). Dunst has dealt with the pains of clinical depression and to go back and recreate that feeling as a performance is an extraordinary thing. Bravura is the word that best describes the performance, not wrought with the same kind of overacting that maybe other actresses would have given it. It’s honest. The kind of vulnerability that Dunst shows on the screen as a fragile, broken individual is almost like sex: we see her naked; we see her scars; we see who she is without the distraction of the façade she shows at the wedding party.

The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Stellen and Alexander Skargard playing father and son, the latter of whom is marrying Justine. The trouble is that von Trier has put so much effort into putting and illustrating the depth of Justine, Claire, and Claire’s husband, the other characters seem repellent and flat in comparison. They aren’t as thoughtless as the “after thought” character, but they aren’t as heady. It is the same kind of problem that was actually avoided in Antichrist, where von Trier only dealt with two characters; He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and one he did not avoid in his minimalist, Our Town-esque Dogville, with a cast of nearly 20 actors. Von Trier is a technical genius, an artist who can make every frame mean something, but his characterization often falls short when it comes to the supporting players. That being said, it does leave more room for the leads to not only shine, but nearly explode with talent and pathos.

Kirsten Dunst’s bravura performance was only a surprise insofar that the amount of vulnerability she showed was rather unprecedented for what some think of as a fairly mainstream actress (which is an incorrect evaluation in my mind), but the real surprise here may have been Kiefer Sutherland’s angry, frustrated brother-in-law. His scientific mind and refusal to tolerate Justine’s troubles makes him instantly unlikable, one who continues throughout the film to say things like “Do you realize how much this [wedding party] cost me? I hope you’re happy.” It is said without any kind of sympathy. His virility was shown frequently on 24, but it was with a government state of mind. Here, it’s just him and just his personal reservations and problems. It’s a very strong performance, one that is just as good as any of the angry male characters that von Trier has written.

Gainsbourg is also not a surprise. She was just as emotionally stripped and naked as Dunst, only in von Trier’s Antichrist, but here she shows a different kind of suffering. The crazy and insanity that Claire goes through is one of stress, not grieving or mere psychosis. Gainsbourg, whom I believe should get more notice in the United States, is able again to illicit emotion in the audience and portray pain like no other contemporary actress.

Unsurprisingly, von Trier’s Melancholia is a visual feast. Utilizing the hand held techniques of Dogme 95, the cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro is glorious, sumptuous, and ultimately, hypnotic. One is always surprised at how the visuality of a film can still remain incredibly beautiful even though it uses a handheld camera. The prologue and the grand finale, though, are the most gorgeous to see. The Prologue of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” sweeps the screen with emotion just as the earth ends. It’s a swell of images and it makes for one hell of a beginning.

One could easily write more and more on Lars von Trier’s newest film. It may not be as intense or shocking as his other films, and it is comparably rather tame, but it is perhaps his most accessible. Regardless of accessibility or graphic content, the film stands as a piece of art, one that can be interpreted in many different ways (The first half may be a critique of upper -class bourgeois lifestyle, more nastily satirical than Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. The second may be of familial construct, the bond that unites family but also that breaks it.) Its exploration into both Justine and Claire is the film’s focal point. The way von Trier constructs his films is inventive and original and the performances he gets out of his actors is unbelievable. While the metaphor may have been rather obvious, who knew that depression manifested as the end of the world could be so beautiful and, yes, so full of melancholia.

Grade: A-

Movie Revenues Are Going Down and This is Old News to Everyone

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Roger Ebert recently posted an article giving his reasons and theories as to why box office revenue had decreased in the last two years. You can find the article here.

In it he cited 6 basic reasons:

  1. Lack of event films
  2. High ticket prices
  3. “The theater experience”
  4. Refreshment prices
  5. Others ways of watching movies
  6. Lack of choice

Here is my response, vehement, sardonic, snarky, and somewhat snobby.

Agree on all points. Going to the movies isn’t what it used to be. When you went to a film years ago it was something fun to do a mini event. But now, the only reason is for “the event movie”, which honestly are overloaded pieces of crap because the execs put so much effort into making them event films. The individual quality of the film is subjective of course and variable. But you won’t get insight or thought from today’s audience. You’ll only get “that was effing awesome” or “that sucked”. You won’t get why. It’s like if everyone went to a great buffet where they were serving a large turkey that had been carefully cured for hours. The fat content is through the roof. The are other dishes there as well, the supporting players. And the guests gorge on it, regardless of its health content. And what do they say? “Oh that meal was great” blah blah blah. No comment on how it actually tasted, how the ingredients worked together, how each dish was complemented by its respective side dish or drink. That’s why I hate today’s public taste. They don’t care at all about what they’re watching. I would at least respect someone who likes Transformers and understands and articulates why, but that inability to do so pushes me over the edge. It’s just eating or watching without real consideration. Also, fanboys and girls suck. They’re annoying and rude during a film.

Back on topic from that dangerous segue. With Netflix, Hulu, iTunes (sort of), UltraViolet, Amazon Prime, and even buying hard copies of films, there’s little reason to pay $10 for something you see once. (Speaking form the mind of today’s audience, bot my personal reasoning.) Films are released on home video in less than four months. Streaming, however, is the “way of the future”. Doesn’t take up room. You can watch it whenever and wherever and however often you want. It’s cost effective, with subscriptions usually being no more than about $13 a month.
Movies are disappearing too fast because of that home video demand. Which is the reason I didn’t get a damn chance to see that damn masterpiece Drive in theaters, dammit. However, films like Melancholia, which can be released VOD (another reason for above paragraph) are independently produced and thus have smaller marketing and distribution budgets. Maybe make more room for these films and do a better rotating schedule in theaters?
Ebert makes a good point about art films. A) People need to grow a pair and open their minds to things like that, as opposed to bitching about it without knowing anything. (“OH MY GOD, SUBTITLES, NO!” “IT’S IN BLACK AND WHITE, OH MY GOD!”) If more art films were available in theaters, not only would that film get a larger audience but more people would be exposed to those films and thus would begin a circle of self reflection and self reflexive thought in terms of their taste. Calling something pretentious or stupid is useless if you don’t put any effort into understanding it.
I don’t really think the refreshment thing is that big of a deal. People have been sneaking in food to the theater since the dawn of time.
These ideas, theories, conjectures are nothing new. People have been citing these reasons whenever a) new technology is introduced to make home viewing better (slash “more fun) and b) whenever there’s a drop in annual revenue. Granted, home viewing hard copies have in the last couple years gone down nearly 11 percent, but the growing ubiquity of Blu-ray and its convenient “combo” packaging (with the Blu-ray, the DVD, and a digital copy) is making up for those losses. For $25, you can get all three. yes, it may be about five dollars more than DVDs were when a new film was released at Walmart, but now DVDs are about $10 cheaper and, if you wait a month or so, the Blu-ray, regardless of its combo pack, will also go down. It only took a month for Martin Scorsese’s newly refurbished-in-4k-glory classic Taxi Driver to take a step down from $20 on Amazon to a very reasonable $13. With a big name title like that, you can’t go wrong. Even the new 3D Blu-rays (which, as far as I can tell, still have yet to really catch on) offers the four formats all in one set, for about $30.
As I said, the conjectures are not new. This will be written about again eventually, within the coming months or years. If anything, studio execs should take a hint from the indicators. They should spend less time taking polls and creating useless studies and instead read more about what the public wants. Go online once in  a while. Read a blog. And take note of exactly who your audience is. Even if it means feeding them something they won’t initially like, what critics, actors, writers, etc. admire is risk. Take the risk. You may be doing it for yourself and for the money, but for once, do it because it’s your job. Do it for the people who love film.