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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

10 April

Halley’s comet and earth at closest point, 837

On this day in AD837, Halley’s Comet got as close as it’s ever got to the earth, as far as records and calculations can tell. The comet has been tracked since at least 240BC and has re-appeared in the skies every 74-79 years, the variation occurring because of the gravitational effect of the different planets it meets on its journey. It travels around the sun elliptically, swinging between the orbits of Mercury and Venus before heading out to somewhere about the distance of Pluto from the sun, then returning. It is estimated, from calculations originally done by Isaac Newton’s friend Edmond Halley, who first suggested that this known apparition was an orbiting feature of the solar system, that the comet passed as close as 3.2 million miles (5.1 million km) from earth, in AD837, the huge tail display having filled up a huge part of the sky. Certainly, astronomers in China, Japan, Germany and the Middle East all recorded it. It is next due to be visible in our skies in 2061.

Melancholia (2011, dir: Lars Von Trier)

Lars Von Trier takes on the cosmic and the intensely personal in his lushest film to date, which opens with the beautiful, haunting and plaintive prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde before presenting us with an opening prologue composed of several highly stylised tableaux – birds falling from the sky, a mother sinking into the ground while carrying her child, a horse falling backwards. And with that he plunges us into a film which divides neatly into two parts. It’s a tale of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the former suffering from crippling depression, the latter a bright ball of fun. And, being Von Trier, he then turns these two jewels in the air, subjects their personalities to extreme testing, to see how the light reflects off their different surfaces. Justine he scrutinises on her wedding day – the best day of a girl’s life – a day that goes spectacularly wrong. Onto this quivering jelly he heaps shame and loss and appalling behaviour such as family can only deliver (Charlotte Rampling is an exquisite sour bag of piss as Dunst’s mother) to see what her psyche will make of it. The psyche ends up fucking some guy out on the hotel golf course, with Justine, we imagine, vaguely along for the ride. Then we hit part two and Claire. For Claire, the super-bubbly optimist, Von Trier has something special in store – nothing less than the end of the world, in the shape of a vast planet that has been hiding behind the moon but is now suddenly scheduled to hit the earth and blammo. How is upbeat Claire going to react to that? Does the naturally dour Justine have anything to offer by way of a philosophical footnote? Which of the two sisters does Von Trier side with? These are the questions asked and answered by part two.

Having made a clarion announcement with the Wagnerian opening, Von Trier continues by piling spectacle upon the emotional turmoil – we’re a million miles visually from Dogville and Manderlay – treating us to skyscapes of Kubrickian hugeness, a Twilight of the Gods such as only cinema can deliver. The performances are big too. And good – Dunst is revelatory as the tortured Justine, Gainsbourg is successfully cast against type as the bright button, there’s an outstanding display of gravitas by Kiefer Sutherland that shows us he can access Sutherland senior’s charisma if he wants to. And Udo Kier pops up early on, as he does in Von Trier films, totemlike, as the sort of wedding planner you might want at the end of the world. It’s a disaster movie, though like no other, the people continuing on with their silly obsessions, their prattling inconsequentialities, the concrete of their personalities being tested for signs of flexibility, or cracks, by something so big it calls everything into question. Melancholia is a great film.

Why Watch?

  • Von Trier’s best film
  • Probably Kirsten Dunst’s best film too
  • Manuel Claro’s epic yet intimate cinematography
  • A support cast including John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling

Melancholia – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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