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September 29, 2011 5:13 pm
It was the headline story at the Cannes Film Festival. A Danish director famous for his artistic licence – violence and Brechtian alienation in Dogville, songs and dances on Death Row in Dancing in the Dark, mutilation and blasphemy in Antichrist – had that licence all but impounded. The festival’s rulers sat in judgment. They, and in their view the world, had experienced enough. There might be something rotten in the state of Denmark, but it wasn’t going to spread to the south of France. Lars von Trier had said foolish things in public about Hitler and Nazism. He must be declared “persona non grata”.
Unfortunately – the law of cussedness – he had directed the festival’s best film. Forget the Golden Palm-winning The Tree of Life. Melancholia is so stupendous, imaginative, weird and outlandish that it rearranges the contents of your soul. The seeming subjects, at the story’s start, are depression and marriage: their spiritual twinship “outed” in a disaster-destined wedding party in a cliff-top hotel. But soon the movie, moving on, is about sisterhood, the nihilistic black moods of the bride (played with fierce pallor and mordant wit by Kirsten Dunst) contrasted with the caring pragmatism of her hotel-owning sibling (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Then it is about the end of the world. The nuptials happen – or un-happen – while Melancholia, a hitherto unknown planet, is moving towards Earth on a collision course.
The film’s first images, premonitions of doom made lyrical, incise themselves on your brain. To the recurring swell of Wagner’s Tristan chord, Trier delivers the opening tableaux: trance-like, semi-frozen, surreal. A bride, carrying an infant, struggles across a miry golf course. A horse panics at what seems a lightning bolt. The bride is seen struggling against mysterious, trailing trusses. The pictures are unworldly, irrational, like Delvaux paintings. Or, in the image of the bride lying atop a stream’s watery grave, like Millais’ Ophelia.
The three rough acts that follow elide three styles of drama: social satire; philosophical-epochal tragicomedy (think of Shaw’s Heartbreak House); sci-fi countdown. At Cannes the multifariousness was too much for some critics, looking or hoping for Trier to self-destruct. (Like the festival committee they had taken the meaningless babble of a self-publicist as an iniquitous Teutonic trumpet call.) But how else do you make a narrative rise on stepping stones of its transcended selves to higher, scarier things? By the final act we are as jittery with divided apprehension as the characters. What is going on? Is that planet really getting bigger? Are we to be crushed between colliding worlds? We thought it was a depression-prone artist’s metaphor – “Melancholia” – but actually it is getting real and it is getting closer.
The ending is suitably catastrophic and preternaturally spectacular. Yet here, too, Trier adds a touch, small but inspired. A touch to teach us that immortal longings can have the final word even in the last midnight of mortality.
You knew it would come. Mark Lewis’s Cane Toads: The Conquest is the sequel to his hit 1988 documentary. Fact: Australia is still in ferment. Fact: the bulging-eyed batrachians last seen population-booming in Queensland are now moving across the nation. Nicknamed Avatoad by Down Under critics, the new film’s apocalyptic menace comes in 3D. So the title critters, famously first imported to control crop infestation but later mutating into burpy ghouls the size of hot-water bottles, now jump straight out and smack you in the eye. The film is horrible, true (more or less) and often funny – dogs apparently get “highs” from licking the toads’ backs – even if the subject no longer has quite its first, feral freshness.
Feral women. Now there’s a subject: that of The Woman, a gross-out horror film steering between the gobsmacking and the gut-turning. “All happy families living on the edge of hillbilly wildernesses are happy in the same way,” Tolstoy might have written. They like to capture wild forest-women, tie them up naked in a barn, and use them for lust, curiosity or sadistic taunting. The movie’s intended fan base is questionable, but the neutrality of its tone is a masterstroke. McKee’s film is almost akin to a documentary through his fly-on-barn-wall gaze. The action gets more lurid by the moment – sex, maiming, evisceration – but the basilisk style and logic-of-illogic plotting are at times nearly Buñuelian.
Red, White and Blue is plain nasty. British director Simon Butterfly breaks a butterfly on a wheel – serving up harmless, sweet-natured Texas nymphomaniac Amanda Fuller to a gang of psychos – and then expects us to root for the scarcely less psychopathic Iraq war veteran (Noah Taylor) who takes revenge. Clangy piano music accompanies cranked-up psychodrama. Everyone comes out of the story badly, not least the audience. We should have felt shaken and stirred; we merely feel poured over rocks and impaled with cocktail sticks.
The Green Wave is a different kind of bar-keeping: an attempt to capture lightning in a bottle. The Iranian street uprisings provoked by the 2009 election led to a storm of blogs, tweets and international web chatter, if “chatter” is the right word for a nation in outrage at electoral fraud and state-sponsored police violence. Director Ali Samadi Ahadi ponders the problem of documenting an event with little visual documentation, besides the blurred scurry of phone footage. Certainly no pictorial record of the prison abuses and torture alleged here. So Ahadi reaches for revered recent paradigms – Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis – and animates what cannot be viewed as actuality. These sequences, co-created with artist Ali Soozandeh, are punctuated with statements to camera: Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, dissident Shia cleric Mohse Kadivar . . .
There are harrowing moments and a pulse, throughout, of passionate indignation. But more precision in the chronicling of events would have generated more power. Instead of a wash of graphic pictorial rhetoric: actual names, dates, detailed allegations. Sometimes prose, not poetry, should be the polemicist’s weapon of choice.
Political atrocity gets the full pot-boiling treatment in The Debt. Dame Helen Mirren romps around Europe chasing ageing Nazis. It’s basically the Great Accent Handicap. The main actors (including Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington) – each paired with an older or younger version of himself as the story shuttles between the 1990s and 1960s – all wear the Israeli bit between their teeth, vocally codding away as Mossad (ex-)agents living or remembering the hunt for the “surgeon of Birkenau.” Read pulp-cinema Mengele surrogate. John Shakespeare In Love Madden directs, but literary larks in the Globe are a long way from the laboured, catchpenny lucubrations of this global retribution tale.
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