the better truth

the better truth

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Melancholia (2011)

Last Moments at Marienbad

Lars Von Trier has sympathy for Adolph Hitler. Most people who harbor such thoughts might think that a crucial PR press conference touting your newest film might not be the best forum to share… then again this is the same person who thought it appropriate to call his dead mother “a slut”. Her crime was to reveal a dark family secret at an inopportune time. Discovering your father is really your step-father on his deathbed certainly would shake anyone’s emotional foundation. It come as no surprise, even with these few tidbits, that Mr. Von Trier decided to make a two hour feature call “Melancholia”. It lives up to its title and some… We see not only the dissolving of a marriage – but the end of the world itself.

It was reported that Von Trier was checked into a mental hospital some time after the unfortunate press conference due to depression. So many Hollywood types feign illness to avoid responsibility but this Great Dane seems to be the genuine article. His experimental documentary, “The Five Obstructions”, shows him interacting with a mentor Jorden Leth. Von Trier seems to expand the definition of “tough love” in this work. If humiliation was a crime in Denmark the state might want to take his mentor’s side and pursue charges. Love him or hate him Von Trier’s angst is real. Unfortunately unhappiness does not a great artist make.

The opening sequences of “Melancholia” are magical: A series of still or super-slow moving images that depict moments in the unfolding saga. The director is in full control of the startling near-paintings. One can feel him adjusting the lighting, the gesture, the expression, the subtle movements… These are magnificent, jarring miniature portraits. One would wish to sit in a gallery and walk from one to the other taking in the majesty. After this we return to earth in a lighthearted sequence feature a young couple arriving at their wedding. Not surprisingly comedy is not Von Trier’s strong suit; but this vignette surprises. We come to understand the playful dynamic of the new pair. It is also a clever segue into the storyline (such as it is). It’s when the couple arrives that Von Trier begins to miss his mark.

There is something altogether disingenuous about Von Trier’s sketch. It is unbelievable in the sense that even in the context of the stylization of the film, it rings false. There are moments. The mother is the paradigm of skepticism and bitterness. She is the perfect foil to the untrustworthy, carefree father who is the embodiment of what causes the pain of unfulfilled promises and responsibilities. He is, in a sense, the true mother of the daughter’s growing unease – although everyone will blame the harsh mother. It is ironic that Von Trier, given his own personal history, would make a film that vindicates the mother. She is unlikable – but only because she has true knowledge of the world… or at least Von Trier’s world. The two sister’s difficult “burdensome caretaker vs. all giving parent” relationship is also neatly drawn.

Unfortunately these moments are overwhelmed by a lack of focus and a continual repetitive harping. The bride’s reluctant entrance to the reception hall, after arriving two hours late, certainly showed her ambivalence about the ceremony. Her fleeing the party for naps, bathroom breaks, dalliances etc… only transferred her sense of claustrophobic entrapment to the audience. We didn’t want to be there either. The choice of frenetic camerawork to highlight the nervous tension had the opposite effect of making an uncomfortable setting difficult to digest. The opposite approach, a fixed POV, would have been more suited to delivery the shallowness of social rituals. In general the performances were strong, with the exception of Keifer Sutherland, but the dialogue and flow failed to gel. All of the friends or acquaintances were merely set pieces professionally hitting their cues and marking the gradual destruction of a storybook magic castle wedding. The sisters, the father and mother were in a better film than the myriad of sketches of “a boss”, “a maitre de”, “a group of friends”…

Perhaps the overall disappointment lies in the sense that Von Trier should have done better. He is a student of film that doesn’t shy away from visual references of other noted directors. (e.g. the hedge formation on the lawn is directly drawn from Alan Renais’ “Last Year at Marienbad”) What a pity the party sequence failed to drawn on lesson’s learned from Jean Renior’s “Rules of the Game”, Robert Altman’s “A Wedding”, Michael Cimino’s sequence in the “The Deerhunter”, Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married”… to name just a few. The lack of humor sealed the fate of this sequence. It’s not that Von Trier fails to see the comedy in the moment. It’s just that he’s not funny; or maybe he’s funny in a Chekovian way without being Chekov.
Perhaps a reversal of the 100 to 1 “seriousness to comedy” ratio would be in order. All and all the wedding seems to have defeated Mr. Von Trier.

There is nothing like a deadly doomsday planet hurtling towards the earth to give a director clarity. One senses box office gold if Von Trier had traded in his art-house shtick for disaster movies. “Meloncholia” rises above the dreariness of the wedding to come alive with the crucible of the two sisters facing the end in the golden cage of the chateaux. Von Trier is at his best with small groups in excruciating situations. The symbolism is heavy – the moon and the deadly blue planet rising above the dark and fair sisters… It was enjoyable seeing the fair/dark sister stripe down to face the deadly blue planet and rise from her stupor. The dark/fair sister’s reverse breakdown was also captivating. The inclusion of the child softened the harshness of the message of facing a world of sound and fury. It was good that Von Trier understood that children known the truth and adult’s responsibility is to play along and yet, never lie. It was a surprising insight in that the other characters seem bent on illustrating fairly mundane truth’s about adult’s ability to lie to themselves.

“Melancholia” is a savage assault on the comfortable ruling class. They join their less economically fortunate brethren in deluding themselves with pantomime plays in order to soften the blow of life’s harshness. Unlike the working class, however, the rich can afford to extend the delusion. They can pretend by delving into “Paradise Lost”, or owning a Breugal painting, or watching poetic European art house movies that make cultural references that only they would understand. The audience at the showing I attended could have acted as extras in the wedding scene. Von Trier’s Achilles heel is that his anger never rises above the small pettiness of a petulant child screaming at his parents for being “phoney”. It is no wonder he was lost in the party crowd of adults during this film. His rage is invested in a bi-polar world where “honesty is good” and “deceit is bad”. Western civilization has been struggling with the question “what is truth?” since Pilot posed it to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Albert Camus wrote a play based on the pursuit unvarnished honesty. Perhaps Von Trier should peruse “Caligula” and weigh whether he would want to live in a world of absolute “truth”. A crazed demonic tyrant would be the least of his worries. There would be the endless encounters with disagreeable egoists: such as the bride who decides to urinate on the lawn in view of the reception. Social norms are cumbersome. Unfortunately human beings lack the prelapsarian innocence of animals. A society with manners is bad. A society without manners fails to be a society.

A certain degree of tolerance of other’s delusion is the bedrock of being a healthy adult. That’s a more subtle and demanding theme. Von Trier hides behind the grandiosity of a planet called “melancholia” in seeming to make a big statement. If only he realized that his strength lies in those small vignettes at the beginning of the film. His oeuvre paints small portraits of truth. He recaptured some of that honesty when the child crawled into the make-believe stick frame hut… but he spent too much time in the overwrought stone castle banging his head against the wall and complaining about having to wear and suit and tie. The end result of this monumental earth shattered drama is the response one gives to a child on a long car trip who perpetually asks the question: are we there yet? Hold your anger. Be re-assuring and know that you were once the youngster singing the same tired song. One can only feel a degree of pity for the adults who never evolved beyond endless boredom with social norms. An artist who dedicates a two hour feature? Be re-assuring and hope his next work will be more mature.

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