Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Von Trier hears the sweet call of doom

The provocative Danish director outdoes himself with a gloom-shrouded epic of annihilation.
Anyone familiar with the work of Danish director Lars von Trier knows he specializes in movies so bleak they hardly allow for even the slightest expression of faith in humanity.

After 1996's Breaking the Waves , von Trier became a regular on the festival circuit, sometimes connecting (Dogville) and sometimes missing the mark (Antichrist). Those, of course, are my assessments. Von Trier enthusiasts will have their own favorites, and nothing he does ever will please his many detractors.

Last May, von Trier may have bitten the festival hand that feeds him. He was barred from the Cannes Film Festival after making ridiculous comments about Hitler, Naziism and Albert Speer. He was attempting, I think, to position himself in the land of outrageous opinion. He also seemed to be making a joke, the humor of which eluded just about everyone who heard him. Von Trier clearly would be better off letting his movies speak for him.

And in his latest movie -- Melancholia -- the director speaks loudly and with no small amount of pomp, delivering a message steeped in romanticized doom. No slouch when it comes to pessimism, von Trier imagines not only the destruction of individual characters, but of the entire planet. He seems to think that this might not be such a bad thing. After all, life -- with its pointless rituals and stupid striving -- doesn't amount to much anyway.

Melancholia uses a kind of sci-fi backdrop to enlarge the scale of its inquiries. A planet 12 times the size of Earth is heading directly for our tiny planet. If this approaching planet -- bearing the metaphoric name Melancholia -- doesn't change course, it's a total wipeout for Earth and its creatures.

The opening of Melancholia boasts some of the most astonishing images of the year, sights on a par with the great work that Terrence Malick did in the cosmic segments of Tree of Life. Most of the von Trier's best imagery occurs in this prologue, a series of images that summarize the entire movie in graceful slow-motion, all to the strains of Wagner's prelude to Tristan and Isolde.

In the first half of Melancholia, von Trier takes us to the wedding of Justine (Kristen Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The couple becomes late for their very elegant reception when their limo gets stuck in the forest. Watching a massive white limo trying to negotiate a tiny wooded road clues us to von Trier's comic sense of absurdity. What could be sillier than celebrating a new beginning as the cosmic wrecking ball approaches? Like the limo on that impossible road, it's a bad fit.

As is often the case, the director offers some stiff competition for the all-too-familiar irritations of his hand-held camera. The bride's mother (Charlotte Rampling) makes sneering comments about the futility of marriage. She's divorced from Justine's father (John Hurt), who drinks too much and seems to wallow in warm sentimentality. The bride's boss (Stellan Skarsgard) proves to be an obnoxious ad man who insists that Justine invent an advertising slogan before the reception concludes.

Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) bravely tries to keep things going while her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), the sap who's paying for the nuptials, complains about the bride's irresponsibility. In conventional terms, he's absolutely right: At one point, the bride abandons the groom to make love to a stranger on the golf course surrounding the lavish estate where the wedding reception is being held.

That’s pretty much the pattern. The reception – punctuated by all manner of small social hostilities – takes place under the shadow of the irresistible doom to which Justine finds herself drawn. Justine has fallen under the spell of melancholia (with a small "m"). Try as she may, she can't make herself conform to what she probably sees as the frivolous demands of the wedding. (I guess she didn't trust her doomy instincts enough to forgo the whole thing in the first place.)

Dunst keeps the audience off guard as a deeply disturbed woman who's obviously suffering from powerful inner turmoil. Dunst gives one of those courageous, all-out performances that looks as if it probably left her spent.

Part II -- named for Claire -- involves the opposing ways in which the two sisters -- Justine and Claire -- cope with what they think will be the end of the world. Having had her erotic flirtation with death, Justine seems increasingly ready to consummate the affair. Beset by fear, anxiety and concern for her young son, Claire resists.

For his part, Sutherland's John attempts to reassure his wife and young son (Cameron Spurr) that the approach of the planet should be regarded as a scientific adventure, not a portend of doom. In a von Trier movie, he's a walking demonstration of the failure of rationality.

Unfortunately, the movie's second half slows down considerably. By the time von Trier's apocalyptic denouement arrives -- and I found myself rooting for it -- you'll either have yielded to Melancholia or you'll have headed for the exits. I was alternately entranced, bored and dubious.

It falls to Justine to sound what could be von Trier's motto: "All I know is life on earth is evil." I don't think even the obnoxious behavior of the wedding guests justifies such a sweeping conclusion, but von Trier never has been one for cinematic restraint, and his final images are as compelling as those that opened the movie.

I can't give this one a clear yes or no. If nothing about Melancholia sounds alluring, stay home. I wouldn't think of arguing you out of your easy chair. Otherwise, cue the Wagner, try to keep from smirking at the movie's more ridiculous parts, and, by all means, let the apocalypse rip.

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