BTSB at the Movies! September 2011

This Month's Review: 'Melancholia.' Currently showing at Tennispalatsi is Danish writer/director Lars Von Trier's latest offering, the appropriately entitled Melancholia. Melancholia begins in unconventional fashion with a beautiful extended sequence of very short, seemingly abstract scenes shot in slow-motion – some featuring members of the cast, others apparently random events, but all with little obvious connection to each other. These scenes are inter-cut with views from space of a strange planet gradually approaching the Earth. The entire sequence is set against the backdrop of a grand score that slowly builds until it reaches an overwhelming crescendo, ending only with the complete destruction of Earth as it collides with the unknown planet.

After this dramatic introduction the main story begins. Part one, called 'Justine', commences with a newly married couple, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) on their way to their wedding reception at a lavish country estate. Seemingly happy and apparently very much in love, we are at first given only the slightest hint that the bride perhaps has a tendency to be somewhat irresponsible. However once they arrive and the reception begins, it becomes increasingly clear that Justine in fact has some serious problems. Tensions between her parents, relations and the other assembled guests begin bubbling to the surface as Justine struggles to maintain her composure. Yet despite her best efforts, Justine's erratic behaviour only becomes ever more bizarre, and the evening eventually ends disastrously for both her and those around her.

Part two entitled, 'Claire', takes place in the aftermath of the reception, and focuses primarily upon Justine's sister. It is finally explained to us that the events we have just witnessed are being overshadowed by the recent discovery of a new planet, 'Melancholia', which has been hiding behind the sun and whose trajectory is now due to see it pass close by Earth. Whilst Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is nervous and fearful of the possibility that Melancholia may actually be on a collision course with Earth, her strict but loving husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) reassures her that there is nothing to fear – that this is a once in a lifetime event that ought to be both celebrated and savoured. However as Melancholia approaches, the threat it poses to their continued existence prompts vastly different responses from Claire and Justine, as they begin to reflect upon the meaning of their lives, and the possibility that all life in the universe is about to come to an end.

Fans of Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Anti-Christ) know all too well that after having watched one of his films you don't generally leave the cinema feeling good about yourself, and Melancholia is no exception. As the title suggests it is a bleak and often unsettling study of life and human relationships. In spite of this though, or perhaps even partly because of it, Melancholia is a truly wonderful film. Von Trier has created a fascinating story filled with complex characters that stay with you long after the closing credits have rolled. Five years after having been booed off stage at Cannes for the deadly boring Marie Antoinette, Kirsten Dunst (Bring it On, Spiderman) returned this year to win the Prix d'Interpretation Feminine (Best Actress) award for her terrific performance as the troubled, erratic, yet strangely insightful Justine. Charlotte Gainsbourg (21 Grams, The Science of Sleep) is excellent as her devoted, long suffering sister Claire, whilst Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys, 24) gives his best performance in years as her loving yet callous husband John. They are supported by a brilliant supporting cast which includes Alexander and Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling and Brady Corbet, all of whom bring great depth and feeling to their roles.

Despite the fact that Lars Von Trier has remained true to form by successfully depressing yet another of his audiences with Melancholia, it is by no means as emotionally devastating as much of his earlier work, particularly Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. Furthermore, Melancholia is a smarter, more balanced film – more thoughtful and less reliant on pure emotion. Featuring wonderful performances from its entire cast that achieve even greater effect through Von Trier's trademark hand-held, documentary style of film-making, Melancholia is so far one of the must-see films of 2011.

BTSB's Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

DVD Pick: 'Dancer in the Dark.'

What is the saddest movie you have ever seen? Bambi? Titanic? Toy Story 3? A quick glance at various online polls showed that there is a lot of debate over what qualifies a film as being worthy of the title 'the saddest of all time.' All the aforementioned movies made one list or another, along with such classics as Gone with the Wind and Old Yeller, as well as more modern films like Ghost and The Notebook. As a kid it seemed that animated films were my weakness – I remember crying when Bambi's mother was shot, whilst Watership Down left me a complete mess. More recently, obvious choices would include Schindler's List and Requiem for a Dream. But the saddest movie I have ever seen would probably have to be Lars Von Trier's 2000 film, Dancer in the Dark.

I first saw Dancer in the Dark in Melbourne after its initial release in 2000. By the end of the movie much of the audience (myself included) was in tears, and I have to say that I've never felt the least bit compelled to see it again – it's simply a depressing, tragic, devastating film that you reeeeeeeeally have to psych yourself up to see. Oh yes, and it's also a musical! Starring Björk as Selma Jezkova, Dancer in the Dark is the story of a Czech immigrant who has moved to the U.S with her young son, Gene. Selma works at a sheet metal factory with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and attaches hairpins to cardboard on her breaks and in her spare time to earn extra money. Selma's life is a hard one, and so to help herself cope she frequently retreats into a fantasy world in which her life becomes a musical. To make matters worse, Selma suffers from a genetic disorder that will eventually leave her blind. She has passed on the disease to her son Gene, and is now desperately trying to save up enough money for him to be able to undergo an operation that will save his sight before she herself becomes blind. However her plans are ruined when she is betrayed by a police officer, her friend and landlord Bill (David Morse), and from that point on her life spirals downwards and out of control until it reaches its tragic conclusion.

Dancer in the Dark is an unusual film in that it conforms to Lars Von Trier's typical hand-held, documentary style of film-making, whilst at the same time containing numerous musical set pieces where the cast break into song and dance routines. The result is a kind of hybrid documentary-musical that both looks and feels rather strange, but is undoubtedly bold and highly original. On the other hand, the film clearly evokes Von Trier's earlier film Breaking the Waves by focusing on the tragic life of a working-class heroine. Both films are excruciatingly hard to watch at times because they are so desperately sad, and whilst they unquestionably pack an emotional punch, it's often hard not to feel manipulated because it is so easy to empathise with their protagonists, whose fates are so horrible that it feels as though Von Trier must have written every word with the sole intention of making his audience ball their eyes out.

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Björk playing Selma – the role could have been written with her in mind, as the quirkiness of the various song and dance routines suit her perfectly, with 'I've Seen it All' in particular being a standout. Catherine Deneuve (Indochine, Persepolis) is entirely convincing as a factory worker, whilst David Morse (The Green Mile, The Hurt Locker) appears to have been typecast throughout his career given his numerous roles involving law-enforcement, but he is still great here as a police officer wrapped around his wife's little finger. Dancer in the Dark deserves to be watched because it's creative, original, contains good performances and evokes a powerful emotional response from its audience, but you really do have to prepare yourself for it because watching it is an ordeal. Don't watch it if you're already feeling blue, and ideally I'd also suggest that you don't see it alone. If you manage to survive Dancer in the Dark however, you can then consider yourself ready for just about anything that Lars Von Trier is capable of throwing at you.

BTSB's Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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