Melancholia

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland in Melancholia

 

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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Melancholia – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac Vol 1

 

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

 

 

2 April

 

Serge Gainsbourg born, 1928

On this day in 1928 Lucien Ginsburg was born, to refugees from the Russian revolution who had fled in 1917. Later, he would change his name from Ginsburg to Gainsbourg to reflect his admiration for the British landscape painter Gainsborough, and from Lucien to Serge to honour his Russian heritage. Originally intending to be a painter, Gainsbourg wound up supporting himself by playing piano in bars and so entered the world of music more by accident than design. However, once he realised he had something of a knack for chansons in the Jacques Brel style, he became a prolific composer and singer, mixing what he called hack work (he wrote two Eurovision songs, one of them a winner in 1965) with experimenta. He became notorious for the 1966 song he wrote for the teenage France Gall, “Les Sucettes” (Lollipops), a song about oral sex, though the singer herself claimed not to realise it. In 1969 he released “Je t’aime… moi non plus” with Jane Birkin (originally recorded with former lover Brigitte Bardot), a song with sexual lyrics, lots of heavy breathing and plenty of quasi-orgasmic groans. It was banned in many countries. Among his other artistic achievements are Histoire de Melody Nelson, an orchestral concept album telling the story of a Lolita-like affair; his Rock Around the Bunker concept album about the Nazis (as a Jew, Gainsbourg had been forced to wear the yellow star as a child); his reggae version of La Marseillaise (which inflamed public opinion until he won the argument by pointing out that the French national anthem is meant to be revolutionary); his co-writing/production on Alain Bashung’s cult album “Play Blessures”. On one of his final albums, Love on the Beat, he sang another controversial song, Lemon Incest, with his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, then aged 12.

 

 

 

Nymphomaniac Vol I (2013, dir: Lars Von Trier)

Lars Von Trier’s films are often provocations. In Manderlay he gave us the sight of slaves better off under slavery than as free people. In Antichrist he gave us genital mutilation. In Melancholia we had a Michael Bay style armageddon picture done as psychoanalytical study. With Nymphomania he’s up to his old tricks, the film being the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a nymphomaniac who recounts her life story to the man who has found her beaten up in the street one evening. The form is clearly the Victorian picaresque adventure, with Stellan Skarsgård playing the sort of figure who, in another film, might say “your story intrigues me, please continue”, while Gainsbourg’s Joe recounts lurid incidents from a life of what seems like relentless fucking. Perhaps the style is even older – Pilgrim’s Progress, maybe – because, and here again Von Trier is definitely tickling our expectations, the journey is not about sex at all. It’s about love. This might come as a bit of disappointment for those hoping to consume hard-core sex under the brown wrapper of European arthouse. But that, again, is a target trope that Von Trier is seeking to invoke – at one point towards the end of Volume 1 of Nymphomania he presents us with a triply split screen, in each third of which some soft-focus guy is banging away at our sexual pilgrim, as clear an echo of early 70s sex-house as you could want (if you want to see it as a religious triptych, that is there too). The strength of Nymphomania is that it works without any of this referential stuff too, Gainsbourg’s delicate yet defiant performance anchoring it steadily, though Stacy Martin does much of the heavy sexual lifting in Volume 1 as the young Joe. Some of the “guest” performances are truly remarkable – Uma Thurman as a scorned wife confronting her husband and the nymphette Joe is so astonishing that it took me five minutes to realise it was even her; you will forgive Shia LaBeouf for his entire career when you see him as Joe’s peevish earnest lover; Christian Slater is genuinely heartbreaking as Joe’s loving father. It is a remarkable film, which, as great love-making sessions do, pauses playfully here and there for disquisitions – on the Fibonacci sequence, fly-fishing, the music of Bach – before plunging on to the next blowjob or biffing. And yes, you see LaBeouf’s cock.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Von Trier’s best film to date
  • The remarkable and daring performances
  • Part 1 of the last, with Antichrist and Melancholia, of Von Trier’s “trilogy of depression”
  • The best Uma Thurman performance you’ll ever see

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Nymphomaniac Vol 1 – at Amazon