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Cannes '11 Day 8: Planet Terror

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 18, 2011 07:42 AM

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Melancholia 2.jpgMonday people were in a panic see to see Terrence Malick create the world. Today we raced to see Lars von Trier destroy it. Having already given us "The Tree of Death" two years ago with "Antichrist," von Trier showed us how his filmmaking works on apocalyptic antidepressants. "Melancholia" opens with a slowest-ever-motion prelude of doom -- actually, it opens with the image of Kirsten Dunst's face, which the camera lingers on long enough to convey von Trier's intent to capitalize on its Germanness.

Birds rain around her. Light surges from her fingertips. Yarn has wrapped itself around her as she attempts a getaway in her wedding dress. Charlotte Gainsbourg holds a small boy and tries to flee, but her leg sinks into grass. There's a shot of Earth facing a much larger planet, and it won't do to say more since these images function as a kind of cinematic overture for the movie that's to follow.

You think about each frame as a painting. You think about each frame as a page in W magazine. But with von Trier you know when he's joking, and the sequence doesn't feel at all like a joke. He saves the few he has for the end. What surprising about him here is his narrative clarity. After the overture, the film is divided into two halves dedicated to the sisters Dunst and Gainsbourg play (knowing that John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are the parents doesn't make you scratch your head any less).

The first half is set during Alexander Skarsgard and Dunst's wedding reception, and it's a wonderful hour or so of serious screwball comedy. The handheld cameras simply wend their way around the people who've gathered at the country manor that haughty Kiefer Sutherland and Gainsbourg own. The bride might be having instant conjugal remorse, while Rampling, Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesper Christiansen, Brady Corbet and, as the bitchy wedding planner, Udo Kier, cut up around her breakdown. At some point, Dunst gazes skyward and notices a space oddity.

Melancholia.jpgIt's later it's explained, by Sutherland's astronomy buff that a runaway planet intends to pass by Earth, coming inches from hitting it. It's called Melancholia, and in one of the more eerily divine images von Trier's ever concocted we see Dunst bathing in its light. (This is the first director, since Neil Jordan, to grasp that this underrated woman has always been somewhat vampiric -- that pallor, her vaguely fangy dental work.) That image is also one of the best metaphors for depression that I've seen: luxuriating in something that might be coming to annihilate you.

In light of the Malick and Naomi Kawase's droopy "Hanezu" and even Jonathan Caouette's "Walk Away Renee," which is part of Cannes's Critics Week, something about terrestrial suffering, parallel universes, and the general end of everything has taken hold once again among the world's film artists (On the way inside the Palais this morning, I saw Caouette waiting in line for the von Trier). At the press conference afterward, Gainsbourgh shed more light on von Trier than he did on himself. He was more interested in jestingly calling himself a Nazi, saying he identified with Hitler, and boasting that his next films with Dunst and a pregnant Gainsbourg will be pornos that will go on for hours. The media appears to have taken the bait.

As for Melancholia itself, this isn't particularly daring moviemaking from von Trier, not in the way he's capable of. It's just severely controlled, touchingly sincere, and apparently the result of a conversation he had with unlicensed therapist Penélope Cruz, who opted to make a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie instead of this one. The hearty, jeerless reception the movie received suggests his vision is preferred medicated. Unpacking American movie genres has always interested von Trier (this time, it's wedding comedies, distaster films, and psychological dramas). But "Melancholia" has much more in common with 1960s Michelangelo Antonioni. Which means that his protagonist is not, for once, a woman he wants to antagonize. It's a woman he wants to help in whatever way he can. In part, that's because that woman is him.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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