Director: Lars Von Trier
Lucky for some – Von Trier’s 13th feature-length film turns out to be his most accomplished and satisfying for over a decade. Indeed, it’s arguably the best thing he’s done since 2000′s Dancer In the Dark, which landed him the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This year he had to be content with the Best Actress prize for his co-lead Kirsten Dunst – who should share top billing with Charlotte Gainsbourg, laureate of the exact same gong for 2009′s sophomorically “controversial” Antichrist. Melancholia made plenty of Croisette headlines back in May for what might be called extra-curricular reasons (Von Trier’s spectacularly ill-judged attempts at press-conference humour), but it would be a shame if this media flap should obscure the merits of what is surely one of 2011′s most original and striking new releases.
It is divided into three parts, beginning with a wordless prologue featuring dream-like tableau and the Earth’s pulverisation via collision with a colossal blue planet. This opening is shot in the style of the glossiest fashion-spreads – a stylistic choice which makes perfect sense as we realise what we’re seeing are glimpses from the dreams of Justine (Dunst), an advertising executive whose calamitous wedding to nice-guy Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is the focus of the picture’s first half. This section plays as giddily uncomfortable comedy, thanks largely to the contributions of Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt (the bride’s estranged, bickering parents) and Udo Kier (hilarious as a prissily fractious wedding-planner).
The second half of Melancholia is more serious – or as serious as a Lars Von Trier film ever gets – as Justine deals with the shattering consequences of her abortive marriage with help from her sister Claire (Gainsbourg). But there are wider issues facing both siblings – not least the approach of ‘Melancholia’, a stray celestial body which may or may not be on collision course with Earth. With apocalypse perhaps imminent, Von Trier puckishly contrasts Claire’s upbeat, rational world-view with the nihilistic gloom of Justine – and anyone who has cursorily followed his filmography to date won’t be surprise to find that the film emphaticaly comes down in favour of the latter philosophy.
A stately picture with a raw, punkish edge, Melancholia owes at least as much to Andrei Tarkovsky as Antichrist, which was explicitly dedicated to the late Russian master – here the specific touchstones are The Sacrifice (with its last-days theme) and Solaris (the science-fictional elements), though Von Trier’s spirituality is of a much more humanist, realist and sardonic hue than Tarkovsky’s ever was. A disarmingly humorous, visually splendid affair that walks a very tricky tonal line with bold confidence – tight ensemble playing is a crucial aspect in its success – Melancholia is a lush, operatic and opulently-appointed kind of “situation tragedy”, a journey into the oddball psyche of its creator that may not win him any new fans, but confirms his status as a necessarily discordant, discomifiting presence in European and world cinema. He’s a provocative pain in the backside more often than not, make no mistake – but we’ll surely miss him when he’s gone.
68th Venice Film Festival
Report part two
Whatever else its deficiencies might have been, the 68th Venice Film Festival (see last week’s Tribune for a roundup of key Competition titles) certainly went out on a relative high with Whit Stillman’s ludicrously overdue comeback Damsels In Distress. Thirteen years had elapsed since Stillman’s previous outing, The Last Days of Disco, during which time fans of the American writer/director – also responsible for Oscar-nominated Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) had observed with increasingly weary impatience as a series of tantalising projects came and went without a single frame of film being shot.
Cinematic precedent offered mixed signals regarding such extended absences – Terrence Malick’s had more than two decades “off” between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1999) without any noticeable diminution of his powers. But when Patrick Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins was unveiled at Venice last year, it was near-universally regarded as an underwhelming conclusion to the ‘Robinson Trilogy’ that had begun with the masterpiece London (1994) and continued with the even more remarkable Robinson In Space (1997).
A superlatively erudite comic(-ish) writer with a piercingly precise understanding of the minute distinctions between the strata of the US east-coast’s upper and upper-middle classes, Stillman – whose films have always been functional frameworks for his dialogue and characterisations – did look quite a safe bet to return in some style. And any worries of what horse-racing folk call ‘ring-rustiness’ were quickly dispelled only a few minutes into Damsels In Distress, a larkish and typically off-kilter campus romp revolving around the well-meaning but short-sighted attempts by do-gooder Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) and her admiring gal-pals to improve the moral and physical hygiene at a stuffy Ivy League-style university.
While lit, shot and scored like a medium-grade TV movie – since Last Days of Disco, digital has replaced celluloid as the standard format for such low-budget independent productions – Damsels In Distress emphatically deserves its place in the line-up of a major film-festival, as Stillman is clearly one of the most distinctive, intelligent and hilarious voices to have emerged from American cinema since the 1980s.
Indeed, many wondered why Damsels In Distress wasn’t included in competition for the Golden Lion, though Venice is far from the only major film-festival where hors concours slots and separate sidebars often prove more profitable avenues of investigation than the spotlight-hogging Official Selection. This year’s off-the-beaten track pearls included two fascinating studies of remote Brazilian villages, both of them focussing on an elderly widow.
Stories That Only Exist When Remembered (Historias que so existem quando lembradas) is a Brazilian/Argentinian production, directed and co-written by feature-debutant Julia Murat, built around an outstanding performance from 79-year-old veteran Sônia Guedes. Guedes’ Maddalena is emphatically a creature of habit, her daily ritual starting with the pre-dawn baking of bread buns, which she then takes to the locality’s bygone food-shop before heading to church.
After the service, she visits the cemetery where her husband is buried, but can’t actually enter as the gates have been locked for years. Her routines are observed – and slightly disrupted – by wandering photographer Rita (Lisa E. Fávero), who lodges with Maddalena while recording the quaintly picturesque settlement and its geriatric inhabitants. Maddalena’s house is a gift for any photographer, presented in beautiful chiaroscuro by cinematographer Lucio Bonelli.
It would make an excellent double-bill with Swirl (Girimunho), by writer-directors Clarissa Campolina and Helvécio Marins Jr., which takes a more documentary-style approach to similar material – all of their ‘actors’ are in effect playing themselves with only slight variations. The central figure here is 81-year-old Maria Sebastiana Martins Alvaro, officially nicknamed ‘Bastu’ (in Brazil, everyone from the President downwards has such a semi-casual alternative moniker) but near-universally referred to simply as ‘Grandmother’.
Widowed in the first reel of the movie – a fictional touch – Bastu is an irrepressible, inexhaustible old bird with plentiful reserves of life-force as she strides nonchalantly into her ninth decade. An even more socially-engaged presence than Stories That Only Exist When Remembered‘s Maddalena, Bastu’s joie de vivre communicates itself to a film which is less about plot and narrative than it is about evoking the genially raucous atmosphere and pulsating energies – singing and dancing abound – in this corner of the Minais Gerais province.
One of the joys of current cinema is its ‘window on the world’ capability as so accessibly and warmly demonstrated by these two dispatches from backwater Brazil. But film can also record and reveal unusual ways of life much closer to home – viz Ben Rivers’ Two Years At Sea, a dialogue-free portrait of Aberdeenshire recluse Jake Williams – previously the subject of Rivers’ 2006 short This Is My Land.
Filmed on 16mm monochrome and blown up to 35mm (the print wasn’t ready for the Venice premiere so a digital substitute had to be shown instead), this is a ruminative, reflective and visually striking poem-cum-essay which implicitly endorses Williams’ brand of self-sufficient eccentricity and his pursuit of a quite spartan form of solitude. Set to receive its UK premiere at the London Film Festival, Two Years At Sea won the prize for best film in the experimental-leaning Orizzonti section as awarded by the international film-critics’ union FIPRESCI. Like Swirl, Two Years At Sea is a documentary with playful fictional touches – at one point, Williams climbs into an old caravan which proceeds to miraculously rise up into the air and lodge in a treetop.
But Orizzonti also featured some more conventional forms of non-fiction cinema, several of the most notable of which came from well-established specialists in the field: Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory, Romuald Karmakar’s The Flock of the Lord and Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory. Pound for pound, however, the cream of the Orizzonti - indeed, perhaps in the festival as a whole – was to be found in its short films: Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s Conference wittily samples cinema and TV history for images of actors playing Adolf Hitler, splicing them into a nightmarish black-and-white get-together of the dictator’s screen avatars.
And there were two outstanding animations from Japan: Mirai Mizue’s irresistible foot-tapper Modern No 2, an eye-popping, multi-coloured, abstract frenzy of hand-drawn straight-line patterns and fast-paced electronica that exuded a delightful 1970s vibe, and Isamu Hirabayashi’s 663114, which managed to say more about Japan’s recent earthquake-tsunami-nuclear catastrophe in seven minutes than Golden Lion competitor Himizu managed in over two hours.
20th September 2011
written for Tribune magazine