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New York Film Festival 2011 Entry #1 - Bits On "Le Havre" & "Shame" Plus "Melancholia" Review

by Tambay A. Obenson
September 24, 2011 1:25 AM
9 Comments
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Press screenings for the 2011 New York Film Festival are underway - a full week in actually; still a month to go of Monday to Friday morning events, so I'll be busy for a bit.

I plan to review much of what I see, whether it can be classified as "black cinema" or not, or whether it has black talent in prominent roles in front of or behind the camera. If I were to limit myself to that criteria, the only 2 films that would really fit are Le Havre, and S&A favorite Shame - 2 films we've covered on this site.

I'll save my review of Le Havre for a later date; let's just say I wasn't fully cognizant during the screening I attended this week (what can I say... long days, short nights); but plan to catch it during the general screening when the festival officially opens at the end of this month, and will review it then.

Steve McQueen's controversial, though very-well received Shame doesn't screen for the press until the 1st week of October, almost exactly 2 weeks from today actually; and you know I'll be there! Can't miss that party :)

The most prominent film I saw this week was Danish auteur Lars Von Trier's apocalyptic Melancholia, which stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård and others.

For films like this that, we could say, don't fit the criteria I mentioned above, I'll try to keep my reviews briefer than usual.

"A beautiful film about the end of the world" is Melancholia's tagline, and I think that just about says it all; or as I said in my 2-word Twitter review right after yesterday's screening, "beautifully depressing," because it is.

First, I'd say if you're not already familiar with Von Trier's work, this probably won't be my recommended introduction; actually, in thinking about it, I'm not even really sure which I'd suggest you start with because, quite frankly, each is an experience entirely its own. Not that there aren't running themes throughout his work, but I've watched most of his films, and there always seems to be something distinctively different from one to the next.

Brutality is a commonality you'll find throughout his work; but not necessarily physical brutality; also psychological/emotional - not only inflicted by and onto characters within his films, but also felt by his audience. One thing they are not is forgettable - not to me anyway.

Von Trier has previously categorized his films as falling into thematic and stylistic trilogies; and if you saw his last film, Antichrist, which also starred Charlotte Gainsbourg, you'll notice some similarities to Melancholia, from lead female characters suffering some form of mental illness (depression), right down to an unmistakable scene in which a completely nude Kirsten Dunst lies on her back on an exterior grassy slope, at night, facing the sky - a scene that immediately conjured up a similar moment in Antichrist, with a completely nude Charlotte Gainsbourg, also on her back, lying on an exterior slope; the big difference being that Gainsbourg's character is masturbating quite ferociously (taken out of context... see the complete film).

Yes, Trier doesn't shy away from the explicit, whether violence or sexuality. Oh those sinful, perverse European filmmakers :)

Although his extremes are usually more psychological.

All that to say that Melancholia could very well be the second film in Von Trier's current trilogy; Antichrist being the first.

Trier was reportedly inspired to make the film after a bout of depression he suffered, and the insight he gained from that. This, some will recall, was a similar inspiration he gave for the first film in this *trilogy* - Antichrist. So, maybe we can call this Lars Von Trier's "depressive trilogy;" although, quite frankly, you could place several of his past films under that umbrella.

I think Freud would have loved Von Trier as a patient; his usually unfiltered style - both his person, and his films - certainly make him somewhat ideal for psychoanalysis :)

24 hours later and I'm still not sure what to make of Melancholia. Is it depressing? Yes; look at its title. But I don't think that's always a bad thing. I want to be affected, consumed; and if the material is intended to challenge me in that way, and I am, then it's done its job.

As with most Von Trier films, the acting is strong; wonderfully naturalistic performances. There's an improvisational quality that gives the film an engaging authenticity. And as a nod to the film's performances, Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where the film made its debut.

Melancholia is dialogue-heavy, though nothing like any of Woody Allen's films. The first hour - an interior wedding reception scene, as family and friends of the bride and groom *dance* (literally and figuratively), echoes Von Trier's former Dogme 95 classmate, Thomas Vinterberg's brilliant Festen (The Celebration); though it doesn't quite match Festen's effectiveness.

Its other most memorable quality, aside from the performances, is its cinematography and production design. Recalling my 2-word review, and the film's tagline, the word "beautiful" says it all, but not quite. "Beautiful" feels so broad and simple. I'm searching for a better, more descriptive word, but can't think of one at the moment. The film's Images (particularly its opening and closing moments, as well as others scattered within it) are equally lush and stark; painterly and ominous.

The location is a coastal Swedish castle, though just for the exterior sequences. About 50% of the film is shot on the outside to take advantage of the view and scenery. Interior scenes, the other half of the film, were filmed in a studio, also in Sweden. The camerawork - mostly handheld, but fluid and deliberate.

Given all that visual information, I found myself constantly searching for meaning in everything; symbols, metaphors... peeling back layers that may or may not have been there, thinking that what I was watching was either something deeply thoughtful, layered, and complex, or just another case of the "Emperor's new clothes" - hollow ostentatiousness.

As I said, over 24 hours after seeing it, I'm still digesting the film, so I can't really say at this point where exactly I stand on it. I want to see it again knowing what I know now, having seen it the first time.

At over 2 hours long, it is plodding; your patience will definitely be tested. And its gloomy subject matter doesn't help.

But, in short, a visually stunning, well-acted, grim, laborious work from Von Trier.

So, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. However, I’ll tell you that I’m sure I’ll remember it, unlike much of the other films I saw this year.

One of the Cannes Film Festival's most polarizing films, as is often the case with Von Trier's works, I expect that to continue when the film becomes available on VOD on October 7th, and in theaters on November 11th.

So, that's the gist of it; I plan to see it again.

Trailer below:





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9 Comments

  • Micah | September 25, 2011 6:20 AMReply

    @LeonRaymond I'm glad you are very open about your film choices. We need more people to think like that. As you read more of Shadow and Act you'll find that the Author of this post, many of the contributors and commenters are equally interested in films that push artistic boundaries. They are also striving to foster an environment where black artists can create works that show their skill and encourage one another.

    The focus of this particular blog is of course black cinema so the posts are going to reflect that. As more of us bring a greater diversity to black cinema we'll see far more horizon expanding films with our faces that we can talk about here.

  • Vanessa | September 24, 2011 12:19 PMReply

    I love depressing films AS LONG as they're well acted. My old roommate used to think that was so odd as I can be goofy by nature and she'd make fun of me when we would rent a movie haa! She would want to watch a Will Ferrell movie and I wanted to watch "The Hours" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - which I loved.

    They make me appreciate my life a little more; it's like therapy.. :-)

    Anyhow, great review as always. I'm loving the imagery, visual effects and art direction.

  • LeonRaymond Mitchell | September 24, 2011 10:28 AMReply

    I hope you as the author of this post is not limited in vast arrays of huge and great artistic endeavors and with that being said, it's a damn good film for many Black folk to see as this might be a chance to expand the very limited views in which not all but a large number of Black folk can only eat the same food go to the same state, and see only the same kinds of films HOOD, URBAN, HOME- BOY INFUSED RELATIONSHIP FILMS. but this is do different and will open their world to a another way of another filmmakers thinking, I always Loved his films and the use of Charlotte Gainsbourg is always riveting and not spoken as her non -Americanized non glamoured looks go hand in hand with her super acting skills. I would advise any one to see this and in the case of SHAME that too is what looks like a splendid film !

  • filmkzp | September 24, 2011 7:44 AMReply

    Nice. Glad to see a review here of one of the world's most important directors -- and irregardless of race. I wonder if the "fluid and deliberate" handheld work is in fact being executed on a jib.

  • MulletLove | September 24, 2011 6:12 AMReply

    Ah, so you'll beat me to it cuz of the film press cred. Sigh...well, don't spill too much before the 7th, lol. I want to be at least a little bit shocked, amazed, appalled, inspired--whatever the film promises to evoke in me. Some other flicks I would have liked to have seen at NYFF include the Von Trier film and A Dangerous Method, but alas, there is only time for Shame. Here's hoping your screening card is fuller than mine will be.


    Two weeks away, indeed. Pins and needles!

  • Neziah | September 24, 2011 5:37 AMReply

    Loved Antichrist, can't wait to see Melancholia.

  • BondGirl | September 24, 2011 4:52 AMReply

    I'm so excited about NYFF and can't wait to see Le Havre...and Shame.

  • tambay | September 24, 2011 4:35 AMReply

    Press screening on the morning of the 6th.

  • MulletLove | September 24, 2011 4:20 AMReply

    Tambay, are you on for the October 7th screening of Shame, or the 9th? It's the 7th for me. Dash out of work, attempt to get cleaned up, hop that PM train to the city. Definitely looking forward to this one. Maybe see you there!

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