Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell
Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, UK 2013
118 + 123 mins
This is a review of the theatrical version of the film, released in 2014.
In Lars von Trier’s 1998 Dada-spirited satire The Idiots, the characters pretended to be mentally retarded in a series of anarchic pranks that aimed to provoke reactions and shake up the social order. Just like his characters, von Trier often appears in the role of the idiot, the singular individual who won’t behave as is expected or conform to society’s collectively sanctioned discourse, as demonstrated most spectacularly by the furore that greeted his misperceived comments at the Cannes Film Festival three years ago.
Now, after the epic misery of Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist and Melancholia, he returns to the mischievous spirit of The Idiots with what is arguably his greatest film so far, a colossal saga of lust and life, a magnum opus that recapitulates everything he has done before, encapsulating major themes, character types and even scenes from previous films, and integrating them into an ambitious, intelligent and vivid work of tremendous depth and breadth.
Divided into two volumes of roughly two hours each, the teasingly titled Nymphomaniac tells the story of the troubled, bruised and battered Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she recounts it to gentle intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who rescued her after finding her unconscious in an alley. The first part covers Joe’s childhood and youthful erotic experiences with playful, witty verve, before descending into darker, more painful territory in the second part as Joe’s desires come up against the crushing pressures and constraining demands of adult life. The erudite Seligman responds to each episode that Joe describes with brilliant digressions on the art of fishing, Fibonacci numbers, Edgar Allan Poe, Bach, Roman punishments, James Bond, Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, the Catholic and Orthodox religions and so forth, establishing connections and analogies between her experiences on the one hand and the history of human thought on the other hand, and in so doing, removing the notion of sin and Joe’s condemnation of herself.
Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II Director’s Cut is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 10 May 2015 by Artificial Eye. Now with 90 minutes of previously unseen material.
All these cultural references are skilfully and inventively woven into the film, either prompting the revelation of a new chapter in Joe’s life, illuminating unexpected aspects of her story, or offering a different perspective on it. The storytelling is complex and controlled, as well as playfully self-aware, with Seligman sometimes expressing doubts about the veracity of parts of Joe’s story. Von Trier’s obvious love for the art and ideas referenced is never self-indulgent, but thrillingly demonstrates the profound and vital connection between art and life.
Occasionally, the dialogue between Joe and Seligman turns into debates on thorny topics such as anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, misogyny and women’s place in society, the outright condemnation of paedophiles and the use of words like ‘negro’. At times, it feels as if von Trier was responding to his detractors, at others as if he was having a dialogue with himself, using both characters to present the two sides of the discussions (attributing the more incendiary views to each of them in turns) in nuanced, thought-provoking ways.
Watch the trailer:
As all this makes clear, for all of the explicit trailers and the provocative title, Nymphomaniac is not a film about sex as much as it is a film about being human, about love, lust, desire, failings, irresistible urges and irrepressible terrors. The tone is one of ironic distance, but also of curiosity and openness, as the emotions and secretions of the strange human species are observed with quasi-scientific detachment tinged with – for von Trier – a surprising amount of amused warmth. Uncompromising and eye-wateringly candid, the film looks at all aspects of life, with an enormous desire to see everything and embrace it all, no matter whether it is beautiful or ugly, comical or disturbing.
In that spirit, von Trier examines the human body with wonderful, invigorating honesty, scrutinizing it in all its gooeyness, inspecting sperm, female lubrication, shit and blood with non-judgemental interest. The camera unflinchingly stares at cocks (erect, but also at rest in a gallery of penises that humorously shows off the diversity of the male anatomy), cunts, tits and arses; in sex acts, but also in sickness and in pain. Women have pubic hair in what seems almost a protest against the hair intolerance and sanitised female bodies of a porn-influenced mainstream culture, in the same way that the characters saying words such as ‘cunt’ and ‘negro’ feels like a giddy two fingers at the censoring self-righteousness of our strange neo-puritan age.
Supported by intense, in turns courageous and uproarious performances, as well as a soundtrack that includes everything from Rammstein to Beethoven, in keeping with the film’s free, open spirit, Nymphomaniac is an exhilarating tour de force that takes in the whole of the singular human experience, including the body and the brain, sex and love, art and life, and all of the complicated, painful and wonderful connections between them. Astonishing, energising and exciting, Nymphomaniac is a fearless film made by a man with a tremendous lust for life in all its cruelty, absurdity and richness.
Electric Sheep writers review the best DVD and Blu-ray releases in 2011.
The Colour of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov, 1968, Second Sight)
Inspired by Armenian miniatures and icons, its tableaux slowly evoke - rather than tell - the life of the 18th-century poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Laden with the poet’s suffering and biblical and folkloric symbolism, there is an epic, earnest solemnity to The Colour of Pomegranates; and while such gravity and careful construction could lead to austerity and artificiality, there is also a consuming warmth and sensuality. The extraordinarily striking actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the part of both poet and muse, exploring male and female sexuality (Paradjanov was himself bisexual and first imprisoned for a homosexual act with a KGB officer) and the film is joyously abundant with melodic folk music and heightened sounds: the crinkling of books’ pages; the squelch of pomegranate seeds; the urgent chirping of bird song. The Colour of Pomegranates is an emotionally affecting film and is especially poignant given Paradjanov’s own suffering in prison and the loss of his first wife. Lost loves and issues of ethnicity, subjects raw to his heart, are treated with immense compassion. And yet, The Colour of Pomegranates is also a film that joyously arouses all the senses: a truly sensory experience without precedent or successor. Eleanor McKeown
La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969, Park Circus)
The pristine swimming pool of a glamorous couple’s private villa in the French Riviera is the focus of Jacques Deray’s 1969 tale of lust, co-dependency and revenge. Of ample size and stylish design, it’s where lovers Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) fool around during a long hot summer, far from the madding crowd of St Tropez. It’s also where Jean-Paul challenges Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) to a symbolic swimming race, and where the film reaches its shocking and deadly climax. Deray does a deft job in capturing the hedonism and abandon of the period, where good looks and chic clothes conceal dark feelings that lurk beneath the surface, helped by a toe-tapping soundtrack by Michel Legrand. Legrand is a name often associated with the French New Wave, as is Maurice Ronet, who plays smooth-talking music producer Harry, but La piscine‘s connection with the movement ends there. Instead, with its smoulderingly attractive cast and focus on relationships, it owes more to American film noir and psychological thrillers of the previous two decades. Lisa Williams
Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibañez Serrador, 1976, Eureka)
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution until Eureka finally released it on DVD in the UK this year. Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Once the misjudged moralising prologue is over, Who Can Kill a Child? is a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. Jim Harper
Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988, Manga Entertainment)
Based on Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s serialised comic, in which telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world, Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film on its release in 1988, presenting concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation. While some aspects have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art. Alex Fitch
Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988, BFI Video)
Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. The characters have become much more explicitly threatening than in Carroll’s original. Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue Alice at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. Peter Hames
The Kingdom (Lars von Trier, 1994 + 1997, Second Sight)
Set in Denmark’s largest hospital, Lars von Trier’s 90s TV series The Kingdom is perhaps best described as the mutated offspring of a hospital-based reality TV show and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The Kingdom‘s horror might seem tame to viewers of Saw and Hostel, but von Trier manages to establish - and increase - a surprising level of tension and atmosphere, something that suits the work much better than explicit violence and gore. The Kingdom is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of horror or fantasy, as well as anyone with a passion for the weird. Originally broadcast in two seasons of four episodes each, the first season was edited into a single movie for a British VHS release in 1998, but this is the first time that both seasons have been available in this country. Jim Harper
Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970, BFI Video)
Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made, but there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski’s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. Frances Morgan
Shôhei Imamura releases (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema)
Eureka continue to make the work of the great Japanese director Shôhei Imamura available to UK audiences. Following the release of Vengeance is Mine (1979) and Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) in previous years, 2011 brought a bounty crop: Pigs and Battleships (1961), A Man Vanishes (1967) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983).
Pigs and Battleships
A vivid indictment of a nation struggling with a serious identity crisis, Pigs and Battleships is a biting social satire by a truly brilliant filmmaker. John Berra
A Man Vanishes
Over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay that reveals with cunning wit concerns of veracity and corruption and anticipates the traps reality will lay for filmmakers. John Bleasdale
The Ballad of Narayama
The cruelty of survival is the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film. His achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. John Bleasdale
Electric Sheep writers review the best films of 2011.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
Take Shelter is Michael Shannon‘s second collaboration with Jeff Nichols since the director’s acclaimed 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Shannon plays the troubled construction worker Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who slowly loses touch with reality as he becomes haunted by nightmares and apocalyptic visions about a fatal cyclone whose exceptional strength causes devastation on an unprecedented scale. Being the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Curtis decides to seek the help of a doctor, but as the hallucinations grow, he scraps the advised psychological treatment and instead takes out a risky bank loan to rebuild and fully equip the shabby storm shelter in the family’s garden. Shannon makes the story work, with support from an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand her husband, while Nichols’s remarkably assured directing style creates a deep sense of unease about an unsettling near-future, in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Safe. Shot with a careful eye for colour, light and framing, and refined with an array of stylish visual effects, the film impresses most in the way Nichols manages to keep the tension at a nerve-racking level in a film that deliberately refuses to give much space to hope and optimism. Pamela Jahn
Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowsky, 2010)
Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Vincent Gallo is an unnamed (possibly Afghan or Iraqi) fighter, taken prisoner and flown to an alien country; confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, he becomes increasingly animal-like. Despite the initial, politically charged prison scenes, legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is not interested in making specific political points, but rather in presenting a universally resonant story. Gallo gives an extraordinarily intense performance and his astonishing emotional involvement in the character keeps the audience firmly on his side as extreme circumstances force him to commit increasingly desperate and brutal acts. Poetic, savage and beautifully expressive visually, Essential Killing is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience that should not be missed. Virginie Sélavy
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010)
Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined but their bodies stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical. Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naí¯ve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing and unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band). There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors. Sarah Cronin
Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín, 2010)
This third feature film from young Chilean director Pablo Larraín revisits the 1970s Santiago of Tony Manero (2007), his story of a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed loner, but sets the scene some years earlier, in the midst of the 1973 military coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as the country’s leader. Larraín’s stylistic restraint in Post Mortem is entirely appropriate, creating an atmosphere of quiet horror and incipient crisis, and reflecting the morbid, flat world of his new protagonist. Mario (Alfredo Castro), who describes himself as a ‘functionary’, is surrounded by death: his job is to type up autopsy reports at the local morgue. His neighbour, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), is a cabaret dancer with whom he develops a sexual obsession that turns into a vague affair. In the background of this, far from the screen, the momentous events of a revolution are occurring. The only criticism of Larraín’s confident and brutal minimalism might be that it’s hard to see where he could go next with this subject matter, and perhaps with this cast and crew; but I will be watching whatever he and Alfredo Castro do next, however harsh. Frances Morgan
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Released in the UK in January after a striking festival run in 2010, Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan remained one of the most exciting films to come out this year. A dizzying, intoxicating dark tale of passion, obsession and jealousy, the film follows young ballet dancer Nina (Nathalie Portman) who becomes dangerously caught up in her aspiration for perfection when she is offered the difficult dual part of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of the classical ballet. During rehearsals, Nina performs a technically perfect White Swan but consistently fails to deliver an equally convincing Black Swan breathing sex appeal and malevolence. Pushed by her impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), her narcissistic former dancer mother and Lily (Mila Kunis), the feisty new arrival in the company and potential rival, Nina becomes increasingly embroiled into a maze of delusion, lust and violence until fantasy and reality collide in the film’s formidable last act. Blurring the line between the supernatural and the psychological with touches of horror, Aronofsky pulls off some astonishing visual twists in a glorious melodrama that might bring nothing new to the table but certainly makes for a thrilling ride. Pamela Jahn
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures. Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. Ultimately, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema. Julian Ross
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Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
A dysfunctional upper-class family gathered for the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies. The film’s take on the End Times is in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Opinions on whether the classy cast succeed in transcending some of the plot’s holes and clunky dialogue will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression. Frances Morgan
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
Werner Herzog has been making documentaries almost his whole career. His approach is that of a man following his own obsessions, his own line of thought. He is the opposite of the parochial, petit bourgeois smugness of a Michael Palin, who doesn’t seem happy unless comparing Timbuktu/an Afghanistan opium market/a Vietnamese wedding to Saturday afternoon on Clapham High Street. Having said that, Herzog’s The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) does have a Palinesque fascination with the foreign only in so much as it reflects on the normal. Of late, Herzog has sought out obsession obsessively: White Diamond, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World are all brilliant in their portrayals of a mad engagement with the world to match Herzog’s own. Cave of Forgotten Dreams includes a similar cast of oddball scientist - Herzog can barely contain his delight on hearing one of the scientist was a circus performer - but it is the place, a unique archaeological site containing the oldest cave art, that is the star. Despite his fun with the scientists (openly scoffing at one boffin’s inability to throw a spear), Herzog is seriously fascinated with the paintings, and his breathless enthusiasm and the patient unveiling of the cave’s wonders create a hypnotic meditation on life and art. The time scales are enormous, tens of thousands of years, and yet, despite this, Herzog manages to convey a sense of both humanity and continuity, arguing persuasively that his own activity as a filmmaker is analogous to the cave painters’ art, crooked little fingers and all. John Bleasdale
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
This intriguing social drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi attracted many awards this year, including Berlin’s Golden Bear for best film and Silver Bears for its ensemble cast. Powerful, convincing performances are essential to the film’s dramatic tension, which starts with middle-class couple Nader and Simin arguing over a divorce. Marital discord is just the beginning. When Simin moves out, Nader needs someone to look after his elderly father. He hires Razieh, a woman from a poor family, and before long, they are making grave mutual accusations of theft, violence and neglect. The film’s surprising shifts in perspective make for a thoroughly engaging experience. Each character has his or her own version of events, but as a spectator you believe that you have a fairly clear sense of what really happened. This impression of omniscience falls apart as the film gradually reveals facts that the characters would prefer to keep secret. A Separation is also notable for its portrait of contemporary Iran: while highlighting stark differences in lifestyle and worldview between bourgeois and proletarian families, the film shows that both groups are vulnerable to the country’s arbitrary judicial system. Alison Frank
Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)
If there was an award for the best opening sequence it would unarguably go to Tetsuya Nakashima for the mesmerising, if not comfortable, first-act monologue in which teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) tells her unruly class on the last day of term that she won’t be returning after the holidays as she believes that the murderers of her four-year-old daughter - whom she refers to as student A and student B - are in the room and that she, knowing that the law won’t help her, has subtly and unobtrusively taken revenge. Adapted from the debut novel by Kanae Minato, Nakashima’s refined, bleakly ironic, yet deeply unsettling thriller is more than just another coming-of-age schoolyard bullying horror tale about the troubled Japanese youth. With wonderfully natural performances and remaining faithful to a script that plays with deft pacing while keeping a perfect balance between hypnotic tension and surprising plot twists, Confessions is an unexpected emotional tour de force that keeps you petrified in your seat from the very moment teacher Yuko begins her lesson in revenge. Pamela Jahn
Red White and Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010)
Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news. Unflinchingly gruesome in parts, yet sensitively, elliptically, edited, Red White & Blue has fully rounded characters who, although capable of the most terrible acts, are neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Director Simon Rumley has crafted an original take on the serial killer genre that flirts with horror but subverts the rules to create a deeply affecting twisted romance. Virginie Sélavy
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino,2010)
On paper, a virtually dialogue-free art-house movie set in and around a mountain village in Italy, which unfolds at a snail’s pace and focuses on an elderly, dying goat shepherd, a lost kid and a fir tree, might sound like one to avoid for all but the hardiest of cineastes. For my money though, Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s finest movies, charming, delicate and subtly transcendent. Frammartino’s visually poetic docu-essay, advertised by perhaps the year’s most beguiling promo poster - a memorable image of a goat on a table - seduces the viewer with its gently undulating rhythm, flashes of slapstick humour and understated approach to its dominant themes; the cycle of life, inter-connectedness, rituals, communities and time. Frammartino tackles these weighty and complex concerns in a deftly simplistic manner that exudes a quietly reverential understanding of the symbiotic nature between humankind and the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. The relentless cycle of death and rebirth, collapse and rejuvenation, is poignantly threaded throughout Le Quattro Volte, from the shepherd’s death, via the kid’s separation from the herd to the preparation of the charcoal after the fir tree is felled. A contemplative, yet accessible examination of ‘big’ ideas. Neil Mitchell
Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)
This quiet little film is about a mother and her baby who get picked up and driven in a truck the 1,5000 miles from Asuncií³n, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Filmed mostly in the constricted space of the cab of the truck, these two strangers lives slowly open up. It is a spare, affecting and exemplary model of slow cinema and proves that layers of non-diegetic (or indeed diegetic) sound need not be employed to aid the viewer in ‘getting’ the story. The film won best new director and film awards at Cannes, Oslo, Mumbai, San Sebastian and London FF. Patience will pay off with this one. James B. Evans
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Melancholia and The Tree of Life, this year’s other contender for the ‘Cosmic Opera’ Academy Award. The similarities are superficial, to do with look and sound rather than intention, but I can imagine both films alienating some audiences in the same way: if you found Terrence Malick’s vision of the world’s creation, soundtracked by the emotive, devotional compositions of Gorecki and Tavener, overwrought, you are likely to find Lars von Trier’s take on its destruction - a haunting series of surreal opening tableaux set to the Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - equally so.
Both directors use these lush, near-psychedelic sequences to frame stories about the family; but, while Malick’s is essentially redemptive, von Trier’s is, as you might expect, so much darker as to be almost Tree of Life‘s bleak reverse. In Melancholia, a dysfunctional upper-class family awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies, but - like Antichrist - does so both knowingly and somewhat clumsily, which will move some viewers to ask, as so often with von Trier, whether the director is on some level toying with his audience and laughing at their expectations of genre and story.
I’m not sure this is the case here. Melancholia‘s take on the End Times is more in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Because it’s von Trier, there is a grim humour at work, but that doesn’t mean he’s unsympathetic or sneery. Take, for example, the film’s first chapter after its Wagnerian intro, which documents the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We expect large family gatherings on film to be tense, but Justine’s depression, which is severe, disabling and barely held in check, makes this a particularly painful one to watch. Yet depression also seems to stand her in good stead when, shortly after her failed wedding, the planet Melancholia draws near. While Claire panics, her sister responds with equanimity - she’s not afraid of annihilation. In fact, the threat of the planet’s approach seems to draw her out of a catatonic episode. Again, there’s a dark irony here, as when Justine scorns Claire’s desperate ideas for a ‘final’ gesture before the planet hits - but it is not at the expense of the characters.
There are classy but rather clichéd performances from Kiefer Sutherland (as Claire’s scientist husband), Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt (as the sisters’ inadequate parents), but the central relationship of the two sisters is well observed, allowing space for Gainsbourg’s more ‘sane’ sibling, who is at turns frustrated, controlling and kind. Von Trier is candid about his own experience of depression, and it probably does take a depressive to portray the condition like this, in all its crippling, self-aggrandising, planet-sized horror. Dunst rises to the challenge well, and she and Gainsbourg work hard to transcend some of the plot’s holes and clunky moments of dialogue.
Opinions on whether they succeed or not will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression.
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