The Movie Club

Best Movies of 2011: Melancholia is still bugging me

What movies gave you the goosebumps this year? How about nausea?

 Alexander Skarsgaard, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia.

Alexander Skarsgaard, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia.

Christian Geisnaes, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Dear Stephanie, Dan, and Michael:

Thanks for joining me for my favorite workweek of the year. I think I love Movie Club so much because of its proximity to the quantitative frenzy of December: How many screenings can you catch up with by New Year’s? What will you vote for at the critics’ awards? Where’s your top 10 list, and how does it stack up against everybody else’s? And, as inevitable as Christmas ads in October, the countdowns and prognostications for the Oscar. Dan, you’ve written so warmly and funnily in defense of the Top 10 list that I now concede my own resistance to quantification may be evidence of a serious character flaw. But this is the Movie Club, so you’re going to have to play by my touchy-feely rules, List Boy.

The first rule of Movie Club is that this should be a space of reflection and relaxation, like a Zen rock garden with a swim-up bar. I’m less interested in praising the films we loved and reviling those we hated than in poking curiously at the ones we never quite got and passing them around for further inspection. I could give a Buck whether you ranked Moneyball above or below The Artist: I want to know what images from each of these movies stick with you, and which gave you goosebumps or tsuris or nausea.

Here are a few of my goosebump moments, things I saw on screen this year that felt truly, galvanizingly new. There was the thrilling convergence of man, ape, and computer that was Caesar, Andy Serkis’ motion-captured chimp protagonist in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The use of 3D as a tool to render a non-cinematic art form onscreen, in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim Wenders’ Pina. Emmanuel Lubezki’s astonishing cinematography in the central flashback section of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—the way his camera treated light as a kind of liquid medium in which the protagonist’s childhood memories hung suspended. Or the moment when the young cast in Joe Cornish’s impressive debut film Attack the Block suddenly, almost imperceptibly began “rapping” their dialogue in time with the beat on the soundtrack. The first time this happened, early in the film, I thought I must have imagined it. Surely this rough-around-the-edges sci-fi action comedy about an alien invasion in the London ghetto wasn’t breaking the fourth wall in such an innovative and subtle way? That’s when I realized I’d better stop categorizing the movie I was watching and start paying close attention to it. What made the three of you sit up in your theater seats this year and gather your wits about you?

I’ll get the ball rolling with one of my pet conversation-starters: Melancholia. Lars von Trier must be doing something right, because Lord knows he’s wrung enough words out of me on this movie. Michael, from your review and your write-up at Cannes (Were you actually present at the press conference where von Trier’s rambling “Heh, I’m a Nazi!” speech eclipsed his otherwise well-received film like the planet Melancholia swallowing the earth?), I gathered that you were impressed by the film’s visual grandeur but less than enraptured by its dramatic content. You, Dan, and I didn’t include it on our top 10 lists, though Dan does mention Kirsten Dunst for best lead performance. (She won the best actress award at Cannes.)

Stephanie, you do list the film among your 2011 favorites, and your praise of it is so radiant (“the actresses’ performances intertwine beautifully, like twin climbing vines vying for the attention of the sun”) that I found myself longing to have seen the same movie you did. (Manohla Dargis’ shot-by-shot reading of the film’s gorgeous 16-shot opening sequence sparked a similar case of viewer envy: if only the movie had lived up to the promise of that overture.) To me, Melancholia presented a vexation that persists six months after seeing it: How to balance admiration for von Trier’s considerable cinematic gifts with eye-rolling impatience at what his movie is actually about?

Von Trier isn’t the only filmmaker whose talent at creating powerful images and moments outstrips his ability to synthesize those moments into a total work of art, but he’s one of the most vexing cases of that syndrome. Melancholia really does strive to be a Gesamtkunstwerk in the Wagnerian sense; it’s easy to imagine the same story being set as an opera (as Lars reminds us by blasting the opening bars from the Tristan und Isolde prelude whenever there’s a lull in the conversation). The effect of von Trier’s audiovisual shock-and-awe campaign on the viewer is indisputably powerful: I won’t soon forget the painterly tableau of Kirsten Dunst nude on a riverbank in the greenish light of the looming new planet or a shaky Charlotte Gainsbourg viewing the orb through the simple wire tool her son makes to measure its approach. But all this imagery seems deployed in the service of insights that are dispiritingly sour and small. Life’s a bitch and then you die? All of that visual artistry and overcooked melodrama—all of that Wagner—just to say that?

Stephanie, you write that Melancholia is “always in on its own grim little joke.” That makes one of us, I guess, because I was never quite sure what the punchline was beyond a petulant shrug: As Michael puts it in my favorite line of his review, “Well, it was a stupid planet anyway.” In von Trier’s last two films, this and Antichrist, his characters have struck me as Mr. Bill claymation dolls, interesting mainly for the potential damage their unseen creator can do to them. I do agree that Dunst and Gainsbourg are wonderful, both separately and together. Though I found the allegorical distinctions between the two sisters to be overly schematic—the blonde and the brunette, the life-denier and the life-accepter, the destroyer and the nurturer; we get it, Lars—the women who embodied them gave Justine and Claire motivations and nuances beyond anything suggested by the curiously abstract script. Can even a lover of Melancholia defend the one-dimensionality of Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s stock inflexible-rationalist husband? Or was he deliberately one-dimensional—were we supposed to be feeling a chilly sense of Brechtian removal from the individual stories of these doomed mortals? But in that case, why the steady ratcheting up of directorial hysteria vis-à-vis the approaching apocalypse? School me, Stephanie.

Michael, make sure our readers don’t miss out on seeing your favorite film of the year, the South Korean drama Poetry—a tiny release early in the year, it slipped by me, but I plan to remedy that this week. And Dan, don’t let this first round go by without explaining why the Michael Fassbender sex-addiction drama Shame was your candidate for the single worst movie of the year!