Lars von Trier, if you didnít know, isnít really a comedian. Even a cursory look at his filmography reveals an artist who endeavors to push cinema in the most arresting directions possible ó though, to be fair, he finds humor in the darkest, weirdest moments.
And he is an artist. Whether you remember or care about his motivations for Dogme 95 (his list of rules by which movies should be made, which he has all but abandoned now) watching the first five minutes of Melancholia makes clear Von Trier has always had a singular vision -- one that has done nothing but bloom since the scrappy Dogme 95 challenge he laid down to his fellow Danish filmmakers so many years ago.
It also doesn't hurt when the first five minutes of a film are heartbreakingly gorgeous.
Divided into two chapters, Part One introduces Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as two sisters. Justine has just married and she and the bridegroom are being thrown a lavish party by Claire's husband John (Keifer Sutherland, in an odd bit of casting) at their palatial mansion. While at first all seems well (typical to von Trier when it comes to family get-togethers) it quickly becomes clear something is off with Justine and her family. A speech by her father (John Hurt) devolves into an indictment of her mother (Charlotte Rampling) who, in turn, denounces her daughter's marriage with her own scornful toast.
Meanwhile, Justine is barely keeping a good face on things as her depression washes over and recedes from her like waves on black sand, beach-side golf course. Her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) a self-centered, megalomaniacal prick, is hounding her through an intermediary to come up with a tagline for an advertising campaign -- after promoting her to art director at her own reception. Her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood fame) is sweet and handsome, but milquetoast. She winds up abandoning it all.
The second chapter finds Claire trying to help Justine overcome her depression while the world deals with the arrival of a new planet, Melancholia, which has been hiding behind the sun, but is now on course to flyby Earth. While Claire seems to be the grounded one, trying to help Justine deal with her mental illness, the tables are turned when the fear of interplanetary collision reveals that Justine, through her depression has the strength to deal with the end -- strength that no one else has.
Written by Lars von Trier while he was in therapy for depression -- I'm guessing the therapy was unsuccessful --Melancholia is typical for von Trier. Oddly operatic yet keenly honest and genuine in mining the emotional depths of troubled characters. He melds his free form, hand-held visual style with formal visual compositions that are stunning in their beauty, notably those opening five minutes which foreshadow the films narrative in a series of gorgeous, arrestingly dreamlike slow-motion shots.
But it's really the mapping out of Justine's inner psychology where von Trier pulls the audience in and pulls the most out of Kirsten Dunst. Her performance here would be career-making if she didn't already have a career. In short, it's career-defining; the best work she's ever done. She is surrounded by fine performances, though, particularly from Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Lars von Trier wants to affect you. He wants you to feel pain, and loss, and fear -- and to find the beauty in it. He might not be capable of making a movie that feels like it was shot outside of Denmark. His use of musical and visual leitmotifs is usually heavy handed, at best -- and no different here -- and sometimes all that self-seriousness borders on the amusing. As if I can hear his silvery Dutch accent asking, "Did I make you feel bad? Good. That makes me happy."
But there's no arguing that, despite the license he takes in his cinematic realities, von Trier has a keen knack eliciting dark, genuine and human emotions from his characters, from his actors, and when he's successful, the audience.
Melancholia is von Trier in nearly peak form. His manipulative tendencies are not quite vanquished (nor should they be) but his emotional honesty -- even when his premises are so calculated -- has become honed to a razor sharp edge. When we find ourselves sitting with Claire and Justine at the end -- waiting for The End -- von Trier opens up a valve in our collective psyche; one that pours empathy, sadness, and sublime wonder into a dark ocean of shared experience.
The Skin I Live In
It's hard to explain or even admit why sometimes even an Oscar--winning filmmaker with a long list of American successes slips past me. Writer/director Pedro Almodóvar is one of those filmmakers. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; All About My Mother (the Oscar-winner); Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down; Talk to Her; Volver? Haven't seen 'em.
So with The Skin I Live In comes my first taste of the Spanish powerhouse's sexy, strange and dramatic world.
Almodóvar wingman Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a surgeon in Toledo, Spain whose wife died in fiery car crash years earlier. Since then Ledgard has been driven to sometimes unethical lengths to perfect a synthetic human skin that resists damage, especially burns.
He seemingly has a breakthrough with his gorgeous, clearly unwilling, test subject, Vera (Elena Anaya) whom he holds prisoner in the gilded cage of his home. But like skin, what our introduction to Ledgard, his mother/house keeper/accomplice Marilla (Marisa Paredes) and Vera reveals is only the surface of a much deeper, increasingly weirder tale.
One part family melodrama, one part gender bending sci-fi story and one part erotically-charged ode to Frankenstein, The Skin I Live In is a conundrum to describe without giving away its odd, left-field surprises.
Suffice to say, Almodóvar's script, adapted from Thierry Jonquet's novel "Tarantula," is a lovely amalgam of the sexy and macabre, the opening narrative leading down a rabbit hole of discovery as the story jumps back six years to fill in the bizarre blanks. After Ledgard's wife is killed, his revenge for the rape of his mentally ill daughter morphs into a quest to reclaim the love he lost -- and that he perhaps never had -- because he was too self-involved to notice.
Almodóvar shoots it all with the skill of a great fashion photographer, with the cinematography of José Luis Alcaine painting the screen with expertly composed shots of lovely architecture, art and nature -- not to mention Anaya's flawless curves. Coupled with his anachronistic script, you'll never be quite sure what's coming next but it's certain to look great and confound expectation.
Banderas doesn't get enough credit for the depth of his performances, but here he does a great job as Ledgard. He oozes charm, competence and charisma while the audience sees the underside of his coldly deliberate psyche, one that is just as burnt as the skin of his long dead wife. One part mourning husband, one part Joseph Megele, Banderas is chilling as he effortlessly slides between his altruistic intentions and his mad desires.
Elena Anaya is also a stand out with a reserved performance that, much like Banderas's, dials back the volume in order to give the freaky plotting a center of gravity that pulls the audience in. If they had gone over-the-top it would have rendered the already gothic narrative with a sense of opera that it doesn't need. Wisely, Almodóvar finds a great balance between the two that allows disbelief to be suspended despite the theatricality of it all.
The Skin I Live in has some blemishes. The conceit of burn proof skin is a red-herring to the point I wondered why it mattered much at all. The finale lands with a thump and is somewhat clumsy and conventional.
Still, they are fairly minor flaws after 120 minutes of a mysterious, fetching and gleefully weird story whose (inevitable?) American re-make should only be directed by David Cronenberg.
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