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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Melancholia.


Melancholia (Four Stars)

Denmark: Lars von Trier, 2011 (Magnolia, Amazon Instant Video)

Depression can be a state of anxiety and sorrow in which the world seems to swallow you up. Lars von Trier, who is nothing if not  depressive, on a grand scale perhaps, reverses that process in his new film, Melancholia. He, the artist, swallows the world up instead — using his art as a filmmaker and his fears as a human to hurl our planet (and all of us) into his private darkness and funk, plunge us into his own gloom and (final) doom.

By the way, von Trier was a jerk to make jokes about being a Nazi at the Cannes Film Festival.  It wasn’t funny. He’s no Mel Brooks. Speaking as a descendant of European Jews, whose father just escaped the Holocaust,  I think von Trier should, in future, more carefully measure his remarks, especially when the world is his stage. I will now drop the entire subject, because his film is a stunner, and no one has ever said that a superb artist couldn’t also be an asshole. (Richard Wagner, for example, who was my father’s favorite composer.)

Melancholia…What can you say about a film which begins and ends with the end of the world — and imagines that end in the most extravagantly arty 19th century way, with a musical lament from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” Prelude, falling birds and images of star Kirsten Dunst (who plays the movie’s depressive heroine Justine, von Trier’s emotional stand-in) floats by in the water like Millais’ Ophelia, while images of apocalypse resound like Wagnerian chords, or the prelude of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, restaged for some lunatic Festival of Armageddon? It better be beautiful — or von Trier will look like a fool. It better be striking; it better be memorable. It is.

After Melancholia’s gorgeous angst-ridden prelude to (or prediction of) catastrophe, von Trier takes us into a contemporary but somewhat Rules-of-the-Game-ish world where the rich and privileged are gathered for a party: a wedding celebration for melancholy Justine and her painfully indulgent new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsagrd), who forgives her everything — and there’s a lot to forgive. Accompanying this odd, mismatched foredoomed-in-every-way couple is a huge beautifully dressed assemblage  that includes Justine’s initially well-adjusted, can-do sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of von Trier’s nightmare Antichrist), Claire’s rich, ultra-rational husband John (Keifer Sutherland), Justine’s nasty mother and nutty father, Gaby (the great Charlotte Rampling) and Dexter (the superb John Hurt), Justine’s money and ad-conscious boss Jack (played by Stellan, the elder Skarsgard),  and dozens of others. A fine cast, all of whom excel at partying and theatrical disintegration.

If the evening seems familiar, it’s because we may have seen before such dysfunctional movie gatherings as the wedding parties run by Robert Altman (A Wedding), Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married), and — a favorite of mine that tends to get ignored in these lists– Krzysztof Zanussi’s  Contract. I’ll bet the party though, that most inspired or engaged von Trier (or aroused his competitive juices), was Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Danish birthday feast, The Celebration, the international arthouse hit produced by von Trier’s Dogma 95. The two films are quite similar in mood and style, at first — at least during von Trier’s film’s first part (called “Justine”), before apocalypse takes over in the second, “Claire.”

Von Trier is both close to Dogma here, especially The Celebration, and a long ways away from it. He began his career with films that were highly theatrical, visually flashy, almost Wellesian (The Element of Crime, Zentropa/Europa), then made a marked shift to the bare-bones, ultra-indie, jittery-camera style of Dogma 95 and Breaking the Waves. At first, his story’s victims were men; then they became women — preferably big famous beautiful, finance-able and adventurous movie stars like Nicole Kidman or here, Claire Dunst. Now, he seems somewhere between the two, and I wish he’d stay there. Dogmatism of any kind can wear you out. 

In this movie, the staging is complex, the acting is emotional, and the visuals are both spontaneous and lush. The structure is simple. The Melancholia party goes seriously off the rails. Then we discover that our universe is going off the rails as well. A large dark planet named Melancholia is heading toward Terra, and, within days, this world will collide with us, and wipe us out of the skies. Life, movies, politics, financial collapse, love, hate, The Cannes Film Festival: none of it will matter. The chords will crash, the world will end. Kaputt. Why was the wedding party so oblivious to impending doom? Why is Michael still so convinced it won’t happen? Why does Justine seem now not self-indulgent or mad, but prescient, right? Is she? 

In any case, the film is beautiful. Extremely beautiful and very anxious. Depressing, but what did you expect? Listen, face facts: We will probably never see a happy Lars von Trier movie. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is the one.

Spoiler Alert


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon