Melancholia (Denmark-Sweden-France-Germany-Italy, 2011)

Mental apocalypse

Lars von Trier’s need to provoke ended badly for him at Cannes this year when he professed sympathy for Hitler. He isn’t a Nazi, as he said, and it’s best to let his films do his talking. The fracas was a distraction from Melancholia and Kirsten Dunst, winner of the best actress award.

Melancholia is far more straightforward than his last film, Antichrist, but shares an opening that’s awash with beautiful super-slow motion images. This, in effect a prelude, tells us the narrative to come and emphasises the film’s about the depressive Justine’s (Dunst) state of mind. This expressionist sequence, revisited to an extent at the end, is in stark contrast the part one (‘Justine’) which focuses on her wedding party. Von Trier’s pricking of bourgeois rituals, and hypocrisy, takes us back to Festen (Denmark, 1998), directed by Tomas Vinterberg, the first of the Dogme95 films. Dogme95 was anti-Hollywood, swearing a ‘vow of chastity’ in only using, for example, natural lighting, handheld camera and definitely no special effects. Von Trier was co-author, along with Vinterberg, of the manifesto but has long since departed from its tenets. However, this section utilises Dogme95’s trademark febrile camera and jump cuts.

Part two, ‘Claire’, focuses on Justine’s sister’s attempts to help the latter out of her depression. Science fiction enters the narrative as the planet Melancholia is approaching Earth, though we are promised it will merely ‘fly by’ and everyone will be saved. The symbolism is clear for all and generates a quite brilliant climax.

However, and maybe this is a result of seeing the film after the immaculately directed We Need to Talk About Kevin, von Trier’s direction of the first part simply comes across as sloppy and lazy. Whilst Vinterberg’s similar direction worked brilliantly in Festen, the contrast with the the prelude and the later sections, where we are viewing an expressionist landscape, is just too great a contrast.

There are many references in the film; the above image, with Wagner’s Liebestod dominant on the soundtrack, reminded me of Bunuel-Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (France, 1929) and Hamlet’s  Ophelia tangentially appears in an image of Justine floating on a river and a painting of the scene is shown. Chien Andalou is about an ‘amour fou’ and Ophelia goes mad because of love. The name Justine reminds up of Marquis de Sade’s character, the ‘good sister’ suggesting that she is one with knowledge unlike the ‘sane’ Claire. In addition, the mansion, and its gardens, reference Last Year in Marienbad (France 1961), Alain Resnais’ engimatic film, which might be about a love affair that never happened. If nothing else, von Trier is cineliterate.

That said, this is a film of tremendous imagination that, at its best, touches brilliance.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK-US, 2011)

Bringing up a monster

This is the best film I’ve seen that’s been released this year. Fabulous source material (I’ve not read the book so was happily unaware of the denouement), brilliant performances by Tilda Swinton and the succession of Kevins, an encapsulating sound design that unsettles and utterly brilliant direction. And I didn’t mention Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography or Jonny Greenwood’s music. The set design too… Ramsey managed to pull all this off with a budget of $7m! See interview.

It’s nearly 10 years since her second film, Morvern Callar, was released and Ramsey’s inability to get her third film made for so long is a sad testament to the state of film-making generally, and in the UK in particular.  In addition we lost her version of The Lovely Bones along the way. Ramsey is a brilliant director because she tells the story through rich visuals and doesn’t simply rely on performance and script. Throughout the film the colour red is a motif (whether it be present as a teddy or a kettle or whatever) haunting the frame and preparing us for the climax. The clowns on the doctor’s wall, as the mother tries to find out what’s wrong with her son, mock her with their sinister expressions of laughter. I could go on…

My habit of reading very little about a film before seeing it paid off with Kevin as I didn’t know what he did (that he did something is obvious). So I could see the film, and this is also how the book is structured, as being about a mother who cannot bond with her son; no fault is apportioned for this. Uncomfortably I suspect most parents can remember moments when their children’s behaviour seemed monstrous to them and in this resides the power of Lionel Shriver’s novel. I won’t spoil the climax but knowledge of this changes the way the mother-son relationship is perceived as it would seem to offering an explanation of events rather than being about parenting a ‘difficult’ child.

I need to see the film again to fully appreciate the richness of the mise en scene and the cinemascope framing. Ramsey brings an arthouse sensibility to the melodramatic mise en scene of Ophuls and Ray, using the home as a place of entrapment and alienation but allowing long takes to play out rather than moving quickly on for the LCD (lowest common denominator) audience (or should that be ADHD?).

One criticism is the casting of usually excellent John C Reilly whose ‘downtrodden’ persona infects his performance as Kevin’s dad who’s oblivious to his wife’s problems. He simply comes across as a dumb male rather than one who’s being manipulated by his son.

Will someone with the ability to greenlight a film project tell Lynne Ramsey she can do whatever she wants for her next film. I think she could be the greatest British director we’ve ever seen.

Autumn catch up

I haven’t been blogging because my girlfriend broke her leg and although we’ve been to see plenty of movies getting time to write about them has been difficult so a quick catch up:

Of the 17 films I’ve seen since the middle of September a few have been for work: The Third Man (UK, 1949),  Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000) and The Battle of Algiers (Italy-Algeria). The latter two are terrific films whilst I find The Third Man ‘merely’ admirable. Two other British films were well worth visiting (for the exam topic ‘Thatcher’s Britain’) are Mona Lisa (1986) and Riff Raff  (1991); I fear Cameron’s Britain is going to be even worse.

The digital re-release of Days of Heaven (US 1978) looked fantastic but I still find the plot flimsy; Malick’s insistence on using a voice over now appears increasingly mannered. I caught up with Waterland (UK) from 1992 and although I didn’t think the film was wholly successful Jeremy Irons is brilliant in it.

It’s good that British films are actually getting good box office in the UK; I suspect this year will be the best for a long time. And I’m talking about non-Hollywood British films so Harry Potter doesn’t count. I enjoyed Jane Eyre as it caught the time and place very well and Michael Fassbender is rapidly proving his brilliance. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was similarly blessed by great performances (Smiley’s smile at the end emphasised the reticence of Oldman’s incarnation – brilliant). Loved the set design too and the Tomas Alfredson’s direction was spot on. I caught Monsters (2010) on DVD and look forward to director Gareth Edward’s next film, he used his ‘non budget’ brilliantly.

I only saw Midnight in Paris (US, 2010) because I’d gotten cinema times mixed up and thought it was dreadful; Essential Killing (Poland, 2010) was better – good to see Jerzy Skolimowski making movies again. Chico and Rita‘s (Spain, 2010) cliched narrative was compensated by the music and animation.

There are plenty of promising movies on the way and I hope my girlfriend doesn’t go blackberry picking again soon.