Director Lars von Trier's Melancholia, the red-carpet-premiere attraction at the Denver FilmCenter Colfax opening night for the 2011 Starz Denver Film Festival, is a feel-bad movie that's been declared a masterpiece by critics aplenty. So universal has been the acclaim that anyone who begs to differ is in danger of being declared an ignoramus or a philistine. But what the hell: I'll give it a shot anyway.
No surprise that at the time Melancholia was set to unspool, the two allegedly sold-out theaters at which it was scheduled sported plenty of empty seats. After all, it's the type of flick moviegoers all say they want to see whether they actually do or not -- and apparently plenty of media types who'd requested passes chose to stay home and watch Grey's Anatomy instead. As a result, the staff held the film until the extra tickets were sold -- a process that meant a delayed start time of twenty-plus minutes in my particular room. Not that anyone was complaining: The FilmCenter, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, is a beautiful complex whose attributes include chairs infinitely more comfortable than those in the tony Ellie Caulkins Opera House, where the fest's biggest presentations take place.
Finally, festival artistic director Brit Withey stepped up, microphone in hand, and greeted the assembled crowd with typical drollness. He encouraged cineastes to visit the Starz FilmCenter at the Tivoli early and often during the next eleven days, since this is the last year it will be used. Why? Because it's being transformed into a "corporate educational crap-hole," he joked. More seriously, he conceded that he's not sure what facility will replace it at next year's festival -- an interesting issue that will begin playing out over the course of the next several months.
Regarding the movie, Withey called von Trier "everyone's favorite director -- until you meet him" (a line that earned a deserved laugh) and took mild issue with those who've called Melancholia his best creation by noting that Breaking the Waves is, in his opinion, "one of the greatest films ever made." But he's clearly a fan and said the picture was a perfect way to kick off the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax's part of the fest, since it deserves to play out across a big screen -- a veiled reference to the fact that it's already available for on-demand home viewing.
The opening section of the movie bore out these words. Melancholia begins with blasts of Wagner and juxtapositions of artfully composed images of giant planets approaching one another with ultra-slo-mo depictions of star Kirsten Dunst and other major characters posed in a manner suggestive of early '70s art-rock album covers. The effect is an overtly Kubrickian but undeniably striking way of foreshadowing and synopsizing the the main body of the film.
This segment is followed by a title card announcing that part one will focus on Justine, the Dunst character -- and we're transported to her wedding to Michael (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård) at a lavish estate. And while von Trier opens the action with an unexpectedly light sequence featuring a stretch limousine unable to navigate a narrow, winding road, the heaviosity soon descends. You see, Justine suffers from the title affliction, which also happens to be the name of the aforementioned planet, apparently on a collision course with earth. And while she manages to put on a happy face for a while, her depression is so deep that it can't help bursting through.
Not that anyone could blame her for feeling bummed out. Justine's got a merry dope of a dad (John Hurt), a hateful shrew for a mom (Charlotte Rampling), an unctuous jerkwad of an employer (Stellan Skarsgård), and a sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who's unable to fully control her angry, tightly wound husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).
For these sequences, von Trier ditches the gorgeous stillness of the introduction for his trademark zoomy, occasionally out of focus shaky cam, which relentlessly probes at the players in a way meant to reveal every flaw and imperfection, and there are plenty of them. But these figures are less characters than conditions -- particularly Justine, whose misery is exploited rather than explained. She seems to be bearing the sins of the world, and she can't hold them aloft anymore.
Before long, Michael, who seems not to realize that his new wife is so incredibly damaged that she should be watched 24 hours a day by a pit crew's worth of medical professionals, eventually disappears, and so do most of the wedding party, leaving Justine, plus Claire, John and their angelic son (Cameron Spurr) to contemplate the end of days. The final section is dedicated to Claire; it finds her falling apart while Justine becomes increasingly tranquil.
Justine's transition is hardly revelatory: Of course a person with a death wish would handle the prospect of doom better than someone hoping to live. But von Trier treats this development like profunidity itself, hammering it (and everything else) home with relentless, redundant visual brutality. The idea seems to be that if audience members are punished enough, they'll interpret their discomfort as truth.
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Some obviously do. But for me, the overall banality at the heart of Melancholia left a hollow center than no amount of naked emotion (or frequently naked Kirsten Dunst) could fill.
Emerging from the theater into a lobby filled with cineastes merrily gabbing about the flick's brilliance, I recalled an experience I had while attending UCLA film school. Students were shown the 1961 French "classic" Last Year at Marienbad, whose towering pretentiousness I found unbelievably irritating. Afterward, a group of us leaving the screening room were quiet until, after several awkward moments, I asked, "Did anyone else think that was a huge piece of shit?" One person erupted with relief: "Oh, thank goodness. I thought I was the only one who was thinking that." But most of the others resisted the temptation to join in the bashing. They knew better than that, I suppose.
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