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Jason Wallis Lars von Trier’s Cannes award-winning film dives into depression, the breakdown of family relations, coping with the end-of-the world

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, October 14, 2011 7:53 am

I must confess a growing discontent with the modern theater-going experience. In another five to 10 years, when affordable home entertainment set-ups and online streaming access have progressed to the point that movie theaters serve primarily as a social function for drunk teenagers, I don’t think I’ll miss the experience too much.

There are a select few films released each year that, ideally, are worth seeing on a big screen. But the trade-offs for that big-screen viewing (which can include but are not limited to inconvenient parking; excessively priced refreshments; often substandard framing and lighting; ringing cell phones; crying babies; talkative preteens in wildly inappropriate movies; and, my personal favorite, loud-mouthed idiots who get offended when you tell them to shut the hell up — all of which seem to be increasing at an exponential rate these past few years), in my opinion, are simply not worth it. If I didn’t have this column to attend to and had no need to stay current on new releases, then I probably wouldn’t go to the theater more than a half-dozen times each year.

Thus, I am quite pleased that more and more limited-release movies are being offered for home viewing, via digital cable services such as Xfinity On Demand, prior to their theatrical debuts. This model has yet to include any wide-release films, but I’m willing to bet that within a few years the format will expand considerably, and we will be able to enjoy all the current releases as far from the maddening crowd as humanly possible. But for now, I’m content with the opportunity to enjoy the occasional limited-release sneak peak that small-town audiences would otherwise not have access to. And in that spirit ...

It came to my attention a few days ago that Lars von Trier’s Cannes award-winning “Melancholia” was being offered on pay-per-view, and thought the development warranted some attention. Von Trier isn’t exactly suited to all audiences, and in fact is one of the most violently polarizing filmmakers in all of cinema, past or present. So if you’re categorically opposed to “art films” (whatever that term even means) or have a difficult time enjoying movies that polite society would deem offensive, I urge you to stop reading and check back next week for a look at “The Thing,” and possibly “The Ides of March,” if I can get to that as well. Otherwise, it’s time to delve into the dark and troubling mind of everybody’s favorite dangerously insane Dane. 

As reviled as he is celebrated, the fiercely provocative Lars von Trier seeks nothing more than to elicit a reaction from viewers. These intended reactions typically include pity, sorrow, chaos, fear and various kinds of pain, and von Trier conveys these negative emotions more forcefully than any other filmmaker I’ve encountered, all the while maintaining a skilled sense of mise-en-scene that results in some of the most indelibly beautiful and perfectly framed images I’ve ever had the distinct pleasure of viewing.

Nonetheless, the difficult nature of much of his work has marginalized his status in many circles. Often (justifiably) seen as an attention whore who uses the medium of film to sort out his own personal BS at the expense of coherent storytelling, von Trier has yet to attain the level of reverence reserved for equally talented contemporaries like Tarantino, Fincher and P.T. Anderson. Indeed, he recently became the first person to have ever been banned from the Cannes Film Festival, and may be facing criminal charges stemming from the same incident in which he made an ill-conceived but ultimately harmless joke about being a Nazi. But unjust persecution aside, the guy’s an ass. He’s a misogynistic, morally bankrupt, unnecessarily crude cultural elitist. But he has a fascinating way of relating his inner demons to the viewer, with a level of blunt honesty that makes his work impossible to ignore. I guess you could say I love to hate him.

If this kind of insanity intrigues you, then von Trier’s latest release, “Melancholia,” is actually a good introduction to his oveur. It’s certainly the most “normal” of the director’s major works, and may prove accessible to some mainstream audiences. In this deeply personal apocalyptic vision, von Trier touches on the familiar themes of depression and nihilism, but they are conveyed in a much more quietly contemplative, less confrontational way than in films like the visceral, hate-fueled “Antichrist” or the brutally cynical “Dogville.” The film could be seen as an attack on the institution of marriage (a reductive view, methinks), a refutation of the value of personal relationships in general (more likely), or as a general rumination on the pointlessness and hopelessness of existence. But for all its dreariness and nihilism, this is an uncharacteristically gentle film from von Trier — by his standards, anyway.

The film opens with an extended montage of surreal, nightmarish slow-motion images depicting the end of the world, as a rogue planet called Melancholia nears the end of its collision course with Earth. From there we are introduced to some of the characters from the prologue, including new bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst), whose wedding reception comprises the film’s first half. Taking a page from Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” von Trier uses this gathering to slowly reveal the players’ concealed motives and true characters. During this breakdown of familial relations, Justine begins to succumb to the severe depression she’s been suffering, which may or may not be connected to the slow but sure approach of Melancholia. (It’s a blunt metaphor, sure, but endlessly effective in execution.)

The second chapter of the film picks up with Justine’s release from a psychiatric institution under the care of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of “Antichrist”), and wealthy brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland). This coincides with the planet’s scheduled close encounter with Earth, and while John assures everyone that there’s nothing to worry about, the prophetic Justine urges a more bleak and realistic view. It is during this second half that the film, already interesting in its philosophical probing, becomes a genuinely arresting study of human behavior, and how different personality types cope with the prospect of facing the great abyss.

Von Trier has always had a way with actresses, coaxing award-worthy turns from performers as varied as Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”), Nicole Kidman (“Dogville”) and even Bjork (“Dancer in the Dark”). Dunst, in a role that earned her the best actress award at Cannes despite von Trier’s outburst, is no exception. She displays an amazing control of subtle facial expressions that become central to the film’s tone, and draws the viewer into her melancholy state with startling effectiveness. With any luck, the publicity from a lower-tier actress like Dunst delivering an award-caliber performance will bolster the film’s exposure, and more people will be introduced to the incredible and terrible world of Lars von Trier.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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