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Michael Vazquez

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2011's Doomsday Cinema, Part I: Melancholia @ 49th NYFF plus Gainsbourg on Von Trier & Lars' NYFF 47 Press Conference (VIDEO)

Posted: 01/13/12 01:35 PM ET

In anticipation of 12/21/12, this past year saw a return of the doomsday film. Melancholia was an okay end-of-the-world movie, but for this fan, it was not a very good Lars Von Trier film. Perhaps a third viewing is in order.

If after all, the end of the world is supposed to be the time to say what you really feel, Lars Von Trier is going out with a cheap smirk, a potshot-ridden parable abut loathsome individuals' final moments as part of a rogue species in a vast, indifferent universe. All of which sounds okay on paper, but Von Trier's scorn comes off as sophomoric, like a bad soap-opera -- or more precisely, the extent to which the characters are living clichés shouldn't also be the extent to which Lars Von Trier's end-of-the-world film is simply flat. But it is.

Because Von Trier is a filmmaker of considerable import, a fan feels compelled to second-guess his appraisal. It is possible that I am simply running the same backlash program that others ran during Von Trier's prior gear-shifts, though I'll also note that while Melancholia is different from much of his other work, it is sufficiently akin to Anti-Christ to be considered part of a trilogy, which one might call his "Man V. Nature" phase, comprised of Anti-Christ and Melancholia -- bearing in mind that for Von Trier "The problem with trilogies is you have to make three" as he humorously stated during his press conference at the 47th NYFF (see video below).

I also concede that at this point, I have been conditioned to expect a -- pardon the phrase -- deep impact from every new Von Trier film. But even when I distill out oversized expectations that practically guarantee anti-climax, for this viewer, Melancholia, though temporarily seductive, is the first Von Trier film which I've forgotten so quickly after leaving the theater, and also when turning off the TV (I saw it at the NYFF and on cable.) Having said that, herewith, a few thousand more words.

As I watched the hallucinogenic foreshadowing in Melancholia's ballyhooed opening sequence, it occurred to me (and likely only me) that perhaps a depressed Von Trier hath recently done a therapeutic bout of mushrooms or a designer drug, in which case, good on ya, LVT.

At the NYFF press screening, mouths were agape, eyes entranced during this sequence – and with good reason, as it's fun, end-of-the-world-movie stuff: the slo-mo planetary crash also evokes a pupilary explosion, making for a macro-micro meditation, as well as a kind of update to Un Chien Andelou's razor-slit eye (yet for me, the juxtaposition of cosmic imagery and classical music pushing our ooh and aah buttons felt like 2001: A Space Odyssey redux); the shot of Dunst being literally sent up the river (as if on a Viking funeral pyre?), as well as the Gothic image of Dunst, Gainsbourg and Cameron Spur brought to mind Bono's comment, in a Directors' Series DVD, about Anton Corbijn possessing the sensibilities of "Old Europe"; oddly, the close-up of Dunst, hair in dirty ropes, having an ugly day as dead birds wallpaper the sky, reminded me for a flash, of Sandrine Bonnaire's wine-caked death-head which opened Agnes Varda's classic, Vagabond; Dunst on the green, with glowing butterflies brought the word "Lunesta" to my mind. It all felt like an expensive magazine shoot – in a good way, I guess, but the film doesn't live up to the visual preface.

After a tombstone-etched director's credit, we see the first of many incomplete acts, and what could be viewed as a a ham-fisted potshot at the end of a species' specious Empire: a white stretch limo, stuck, its very length choking a too-sharp curve in a castle road, its newlywed passengers forced to abandon their gilded chariot. To my fertile imagination, Kirsten Dunst sounds like John Wayne (didn't he wear wedding dresses?) when she says "Well I can see it's not lookin' good." Of course, Von Trier could simply be loosely using the opening of Earth Vs Flying Saucer, which also finds newlyweds on-the-road, something astir in the stratosphere, and even a third planet creating havoc. 

Once again, in a career well-punctuated with literally fatal femmes, (Vampire Chronicles, Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette) Dunst plays a doomed princess-bride, Justine, the loveable, deep-depression-plagued, upwardly-mobile copywriter in a fairy tale that ends badly – this time, for everyone, rather than just the landed gentry she finds herself amidst, including Von Trier's collection of men, whom he contemptuously depicts with little dimension and upon whom he confers little utility: Justine's boor-of-a newly-minted husband (Alexander Skarsgard, whose boyishness reminded me of Gael Garcia Bernal), ad-company schmear for boss and best-man Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), aggro brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland) and philandering father (John Hurt) make for a motley kind of four horsemen of the apocalypse, or stock characters for a game of Clue, and it's eminently manifest that Von Trier sees the women far more kindly than the men (a likely right mindset for EOTW?). Von Trier does create two kindly male characters, in the son Leo (Cameron Spur) and in the house-servant, nicknamed "Little Fathe"r (Jesper Christensen) who, as doom impends, skips work for the first time in his life ("..and the last shall go first?") to be with his family, while the wealthiest man, -- well let's say for now that he hits the hay early when he's needed most.

When Justine looks out at her never-to-be honeymoon castle's green, resigned to a fate not of her choosing, Dunst kind of reprises the final mind-state of her character in Marie Antoinette, and it's a bit of smart casting of an actor with an empathetic appeal to women by a director who, despite accusations of misogyny (against which I find myself jovially defending VonTrier, tween-screens at this year's NYFF) really knows something very deep about the female psyche. Not for nothing do actors want him to direct them to major prizes (WIKItrivia: Penelope Cruz was supposed to play Justine, having inspired Von Trier to model Claire and Justine after the sisters in Genet's The Maids, , which she sent him to consider developing) nor for nothing did he produce successful porn under the PUZZY POWER manifesto.

We come to know the wedding party via their revelatory toasts at the reception, which kind of reminded me (and likely only me) of photographer Larry Fink's very interesting Weimer Era mock-up of Team Bush 2 which was rejected by The New Yorker --swapping out of course, neo-cons, clowns and prostitutes for a wedding party of societal archetypes that make easy targets for Von Trier.

Justine's boss toasts her with an announcement of her promotion, and a reminder of her deadline – he has, in fact, hired a lackey, Tim, (Brady Corbet) to follow her around, awaiting her delivery of a tag line for a photo that looks like a post-bomb-blast runway, contorted model corpses strewn about; her parents' toast turns into the airing of dirty laundry, and Michael, her gee-whiz groom-boy can barely muster the "luckiest man on earth" line that Lou Gehrig delivered (apropos, as Michael too, is terminal, so to speak, and his speech also constitutes yet another Von Trier equus reference, given Gehrig's nickname, "The Iron Horse" – or more literally and ultimately perhaps symbolically: he is a damn Yankee with cancer); her Father uses his toast to work in a sly invite to the ladies seated at his table, whose company he will choose over his desperate daughter, when, at evening's end, she pleads with him to stay (he agrees, but instead bails on her, leaving a "Dear Justine" note).

Claire, (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who can seemingly do no wrong these days) Justine's ever-fretting sister and wife to Keifer, never gets her toast in (but she shares the story of her life as an artist and explains her working relationship with Von Trier in this exclusive interview).


Charlotte Gainsbourg can rock leather elbows on a tweed coat, fully disproving Morrissey's axiom on Track 1, Side 1 of Solo Lp 1. She earnestly, affably discusses her self-perception and how, despite a life begun at 12 in film and music, she doesn't consider herself an artist, and how this may actually be reassuring, affording her a healthy distance form the trappings of compulsory creation of Art. She also talks about returning to music 20 years after the death of her father, with whom she recorded the controversial "Lemon Incest" at age 12; her work with Lars Von Trier on Anti-Christ, for which she was voted Best Actress at Cannes; recording with Beck.

The toast delivered by Justine's mother, Gaby (Charlotte Ramping, who can also seemingly do no wrong) serves as a calm rebuttal to her husband's toast during which he (in a bit of bad, force-written drama) bizarrely describes her as domineering, levels scorn (with a perfect head-nod) toward the men at her table, calmly stating a detestation of marriage, "especially when it involves some of my closest family members".

rampling dress
photo c. cinema.theiapolis.com
The Rampling documentary The Look reminds me of Bacall's use of the phrase "the look" for a photo caption in her auto-bio, and Rampling's similarity to Bacall reminds one of the fact that Von Trier insisted on taking the chambers directly below the room of Bacall, whom he greatly admires, during the filming of Manderlay.

There seems to be another pointed assignment -- and a case of Art irritating other Art -- in the casting of Kiefer Sutherland, who justified American exceptionalism playing a kind of realpolitik TV action hero in "24", as Justine's crass brother-in-law who knows the price of everything and value of nothing, looking positively gargoyle and demonic as he (yet again) cites the cost of the wedding – "What some folks would call an arm and a leg" – delivering another of Melancholia's many unfortunate examples of a general ham-fistedness.

Surprisingly, the great Udo Kier, playing the kind of vampy wedding planner one sees in Father of the Bride Umpteen: Another Sequel!, feels flat. I'll take Kier's outré photographer bit in the under-screened The Last Minute, directed by Steven Norrington, from whom it would be nice to see more feature directorial work.

The aforementioned Charlotte Rampling as Gaby, the acerbic, downright venomous, battle-scarred matron, rounds out the clichés, though Rampling preserves the elemental truth that informs cliché, doing a fine job as the only family member whose advice is worth a damn. In a dress of faded sky blue with gray concentric circles emanating from the fetal center like a radioactive shockwave, the half-life of which can be measured on her face, she advises her daughter, who expresses her malaise to her privately: "Well you can still wobble, can't you? Wobble the hell on out of here", emerging like a radioactive survivor of nuclear (family) warfare, a terminally toxic witness, warning someone at the edge of the cloud to save herself, delivering what was to my feeble mind the single authentic moment in the film. This is followed immediately by what I also saw as the only unmanipulatively heartbreaking shot in the film: Justine, post Mom-Daughter confab, shaken, seated bolt upright at the edge of the party, embodying the title for the 1988 NYFF's opening night film.

Of course, Dunst is too depressed and fearful to ever flee (later in the film she makes it to town, but comes back, fully crippled by depression and cared for by Charlotte in a scene which reminded me of Bibi Anderssen caring for Liv Ulmann in Persona – more on that below) and in any case, nobody's going anywhere, as Mother Nature – make that Von Trier's cold, mechanical universe -- is to have the final say.

But as the wedding night wears on and EOTW slowly approaches, instead of the bride enduring a violation in lieu of honeymoon eros, as in Von Trier's Breaking The Waves, he works in a bit of one woman hen-night, with Dunst undergoing what could perhaps be seen as the instinctive behavior to ensure survival in the face of impending doom: after fleeing on a golf cart, she waters the greenery, as it were (the image of her crouched over, urinating, worthy of the picture-book Pees On Earth, which depicts exactly that) returns, happens upon the lackey hired to follow her, and rather than laying a golden egg of a tag line, lays him instead, perhaps instinctively selecting to mate with the do-anything-and-thus-most-likely-to-survive-male, in a deed foreshadowed by her boss instructing him, with gusto, to "Be there at the birthing".

Von Trier shoots their coitus abruptus in a visually telling sandpit, a desert radius of infertility where nothing will ever grow, their intercourse (orgasm notwithstanding) emerging dually as another of many incomplete deeds in this film, as well as an indictment of a species whose procreation has left a planet barren. Later in the film, before the end of the world, but after Michael splits, the lackey runs his program as Rodentia Superviverus, putting forth to Justine the notion of teaming up on a mutual bass of survival. "I don't think that would be a good idea" Justine tensely deadpans.

And in a universe of infinite possibilities (and also a Hollywood full of bad ideas) it is possible to imagine a Hollywood Rom-Com re-write of this, in which said lackey is actually an earnest young man, who the female lead chooses over her stuffy, arranged-marriage husband, and they ride off on the golf cart together like in The Graduate, or walk around all night, like Before Sunrise.

One particular Hollywood element one wishes to imagine the absence of in this film is the overbearing superimposition of music – no, I don't expect Dogme 95 (actually, a Dogme 95-adherent EOTW film would be interesting) -- but there are several instances where music is simply overkill, and in a moment of art unintentionally indicting itself, we have Justine's mockery of Charlotte's pastoral vision for the EOTW: "Maybe some music, Beethoven's 9th?" And it could be argued that her unvarnished opinion (which I won't quote here) of Claire's idea to have "a glass of wine on the terrace" might also be apropos in appraising Von Trier's over-use of music.

On the lo-tech/high-impact side, Melancholia does boast one of the baddest little props to emerge in a while, a device which I'll call the doom-o-meter. Nothing more than an inward-spiraling clothes-hanger affixed to a stick, and used to measure the planet's distance, this is a prop with real character, delivering a priceless, bargain-basement special-effect and affording more than a few metaphors.

THIS MORTAL COIL – speaking of which, the 4AD multi-artist project has released a boxed-set well-worth one's listening time.

Metaphor is also perhaps more directly (and brutally) found in the similarity between the circles on Mother Gaby's dress design, and the clothes hangar coiled atop the doom-o-meter, for crude applications along the lines of dilation, regret and termination, which one needn't describe precisely herein.

There is also some nice photography and a few interesting visual effects: when Claire is awakened in a lounge chair, the shadow of a tree hangs on her like a scythe. Cut to an empty chair, then to Claire finding Joe dead in the barn. The electric currents emanating from the power lines simply give one a terrific cinematic pause to wonder what would actually happen during the early stages of planetary collision,  (and why did the golf cart's battery start when the car's wouldn't? Presumably both have magnets which would be affected) while Justine's trippy, electric hand-trails are perhaps more evidence of Von Trier's recent episode in pharmacopoeia, perhaps while watching the wood-spirits in Avatar?

The costume design in this film is also smart (we are actually living in an age of particularly lucid costume design, and by this I don't necessarily mean grand, nor even stylish, but rather, highly poetic). Whether it's the aforementioned matron's dress, Justine's teardrop earrings (final granules in a long process); her first non-depressed-morning silk tunic, like a Maxfield Parrish nymph; the slow exposing of Claire's bare shoulder through different scenes paralleling her slow acceptance of an agonizing reality that strips away comfort of a flimsy shawl, revealing a single, knotted shoulder-strap, like a final curtain to be pulled, a naked truth finally embraced, after which she dons black.

To be certain, Justine was also dressed exquisitely as she lay along a moonlit riverbank, discovered by a silent Claire who skulks in the bushes peering -- as if in a Rousseau -- at her noble, savage sister under the night sky. Perhaps like Tarkovsky's would-be warderer-off of the EOTW in The Sacrifice, Justine is offering herself to the orb, also burning down the house, in a manner of speaking. Another beautiful nude offering of sorts can also be found in the worthwhile meditation on penance, redemption and parallel universes-made-manifest, Another Earth.

As doom approaches, different personas play out – Sutherland, who began as the reassuring expert of sorts, follows the CIA dicta famously re-appropriated by Barbara Kruger, going through a familiar authoritarian all-purpose dialectic useful for snafus, depressions, disasters, wars.

kruger

Barbara Kruger's "Untitled 76"

Justine emerges as a mother-sister-figure of sorts, increasingly serene as she undergoes a visceral transformation into an almost feral state, fully grasping that she will soon be sprung from this mortal coil. At the breakfast table she eats jam insouciantly with her fingers, and as the crisis emerges, she is uniquely able to placate Claire's child Leo, demonstrating an intuitive wisdom and coming into her own as "Auntie Steel-breaker", the name conferred upon her by said nephew.

And this reversal reminds me of a comment delivered by another audience member I spoke with, that Von Trier is "A depressive who makes depressing movies for other depressives". To be certain, there is a depressive's revenge fantasy element to this, and I'm guessing that in 2011, a lot of depressed sisters crashing on their married siblings' couches watched Melancholia (via video-on-demand) with glee. When Justine, challenged by Claire to empirically prove the coming EOTW, says, "I know things and when I say we're alone, we're alone", I was reminded of a scene in the over-rated Marcy Mary May Marlene, wherein the couch-surfing, insecure, haunted sister, incensed at her older sister's condescension, tells her that she is in fact a "leader", pathetically repeating what a cult leader had manipulatively told her.


I was also reminded of asking Von Trier, after the NYFF 47 screening of Anti-Christ, about his positing of two individuals with very different worldviews into a silent, unforgiving natural environment, à la Persona, and you could argue that the opposing manners and changing comfort levels of the sisters – specifically basket-case depressive Justine becoming the grounding presence and emerging as correct, while the seemingly well-adjusted stalwart Claire faces insecurities and harsh, repressed truths, unraveling as she comes to ken what Justine already intuits.

I'll also note that irrespective of Von Trier's stated intention to not do so, when I asked Him at NYFF 47, if he ever sought to strip away the coping mechanisms and societal constructs that are used to obscure the elements – be they mysterious or unpalatable or both – of a harsh, undifferentiated nature (see the fox in Anti-Christ), to my mind it emerges that Anti-Christ and Melancholia, constitute what one might call his "Man VS Nature" series, insofar as you have a common theme of individuals of deeply differing viewpoints on, well, the nature of nature, put in a situation wherein these world views do battle in existential opposition as they find themselves directly in the face of primal circumstances (a desert island, the deep woods, deep space) making for a diptych (which again on LVT time equals a trilogy) going from Adam and Eve – make that She and He --  straight through to The End of The World, meditating on innate good and evil, and a stripping away of methodologies certainties: the presumed comfort of therapeutic psychology in Anti-Christ, and the liminal, casual anthropocentrism of Melancholia; in both cases, optimism, which began as a certainty, was laid waste to, en toto.

When I mentioned Nietzsche, Von Trier said he'd had Anti-Christ on the desk by his bed for forty years, but still hadn't read it. Irrespective of this, Von Trier is, in addition to many other important things, a master stripper-away-er (as it were) and yes, of course it's probably not a very good idea to ask any director this point blank, but again, EOTW, like the deep woods of Anti-Christ, is by definition a stripper-awayer (as it were) of false constructs.

In further pursuit of the Man VS Nature theme: Where the male, through blunt force, defeated – or rather silenced momentarily a female examining nature in Anti-Christ, in Melancholia -- again a film in which a marginalized female insists that Evil be acknowledged -- a man kills himself and the female embraces Nature. He won the battle in Anti-Christ, but She wins the war in Melancholia, while ultimately, nothing more nor less significant than one of an infinite number of cosmic dice rolls has the final say, as it were.

As I finish this, I hear the news reports of intra-European schisms and fissures and I contemplate Von Trier possibly saying, amongst many other things in Melancholia, that the world will end before Europe becomes a single nation-state, like America -- a notion perhaps manifested during the scene in which Michael, in an effort to be tender, proffers a photo of land he's purchased where Justine can go on ugly days. Pointing out the apple trees (which seem to be aligned along a lane of doom like the lawn at the castle) he explains: "These particular apples are called Empire Apples" delivering what could be viewed as a fairly sophomoric metaphor. Promising to keep the snapshot with her forever after he kinda suggests she do so reminding me of Willie (John Lurie) in Stranger Than Paradise giving Eva (Eszter Balint)  a dress to wear, so she can fit in, in America – just as we see the dress in the garbage on the next scene, we see the photo left behind, creased on a chair.

Audience members were particularly silent as the credits rolled, and I spoke with a few who hated Anti-Christ but loved Melancholia, and that was all I needed to know, to predict that this would be his best-selling film in the U.S. But for me, the whole experience felt over-informed by the sense that I was watching a Von Trier film at a major festival rather then a sense of being enveloped in cinema.

Additionally, this time Von Trier's empathetic female doesn't feel like an originally conceived character, but rather, she feels of a demographic – LVT seems to be pandering, depicting an audiences' repressed rage back to itself as a marketable cinematic adventure – and again, this sounds okay on paper, but this time he creates nothing really unique in the process, though again, this will likely be his best-selling picture in America, where we love a tragedy with a happy ending, hence the success of A Star Is Born variant, The Artist.

Even the final scene in which Justine, Claire and Leo hold hands in a wooden teepee frame with no cover, delivering an image providing perhaps a literal, visual, damnation of a land stolen, felt trite, like a rock-star shaving his head in penance when something bad happens.

When attacking cliché, Von Trier usually does so with small, clear drama, but in Melancholia, he himself has used one, and failed to transcend. Admittedly, it is perhaps unfair to hold Von Trier to the standard he has set, but perhaps it is a fan's obligation to an artist who is capable of so much. Make no mistake about it: Melancholia is definitely an ok, old school, trad, end-of-the-world movie. For this fan, it's also definitely not a very good Lars Von Trier film. Perhaps a third viewing is in order.

File Under "Wrestling Ourselves off A Cliff, Yet Again"

Those beautiful northern lights we see in the beginning of the film? Von Trier may have to pay a copyright violation fee for shooting them, much as he may have had to pay for the use of the famous paintings, as apparently Norway and Finland are battling over the trademarking rights for The Northern Lights, with, apparently millions of tourist dollars at stake.


File Under "How Do Ya Like Them Odds?"


Apparently, there may be twice as many planets in our galaxy as we thought?

File Under "Eternal Recurrence?"

At the NYFF two years ago, Von Trier mentions the infamous episode of Nietzsche hugging a horse in Turin. Fast-forward two years, and Béla Tarr, without ever depicting the actual incident -- turns this story into The Turin Horse, one of the most meaningful cinema experiences I've ever had. Seeing and hearing Tarr elucidate his philosophy of shooting in-person during a NYFF Q&A session with Film Society of Lincoln Center Director Richard Peña (whom Mr. Tarr warmly acknowledged as the reason he came to New York for the 2011 NYFF) was a cinema life-highlight for yours, truly -- and apparently one of many to come for all New York cinephiles, as this February FSLC are curating a not-to-be-missed-under-any-circumstances full retrospective of Mr. Tarr's films, "The Last Modernist: The Complete Works of Béla Tarr"