Cinema Reviews Thoughts


Despite a Cannes premiere overshadowed by controversy, director Lars Von Trier has returned with arguably his finest film.

It explores the relationship between two sisters at a large country house: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), recently married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who along with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), has organised the wedding and reception.

Split into two parts, the first involves an extravagant wedding reception, filled with misery; whilst the second focuses on the two sisters as they stay in the same location, as a large blue planet called Melancholia threatens to collide with the earth.

Opening with a stunning slow-motion overture, set to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it blends intimate drama with grand, apocalyptic disaster and the end result is a stylish and – unusually for Von Trier – heartfelt film.

In the past the director’s sneaky, contrarian could be both a blessing and a curse, making his films boldly inventive, exasperating, or sometimes both.

His last film Antichrist (2009) displayed some of his undoubted gifts as a director before collapsing into a ludicrous orgy of violence and hysteria, which scandalised the audiences at its world premiere in Cannes.

After the climactic scene of the film – which was one of those genuine ‘is Von-Trier-taking-the-piss?’ endings – a bizarre dedication appeared to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Why? I’m not exactly sure, other than the Danish director seems like a big fan.

But strangely, it is his latest that bears the touch of the great Russian director.

Here he seems to be channelling two very different films: Solaris (1972), with its exploration of a ‘living’ planet affecting human emotions, and The Celebration (1998), Thomas Vinterberg’s hellish depiction of a family gathering, which still stands as the highpoint of the Dogme movement Von Trier helped create.

But Melancholia has its own unique charms and manages to capture the Dane at his very best – he never takes the material too seriously, but also isn’t afraid to indulge in big, bold strokes.

The wedding section is filmed with his puckish sense of humour that often drives his detractors crazy: not only do the happy couple struggle to even reach the party in their limousine, but when they get there, discover that no-one is really happy anyway.

Opting for a handheld shooting style, after the slow-motion imagery at the beginning, the director has a lot of fun with the tacky misery of the event: the meaningless counting of beans, unhappy relationships and fruitless driving around in golf carts create a tangible atmosphere.

Rarely has despair been so joyously captured on screen.

But there is something more here than Von Trier just having a cheap dig at the shallow pretensions of the rich: he is making a wider point about human emotions, our capacity for self-delusion and the wisdom of despair. Speaking of emotions, according to Cine Vue some films are able to make us smell scents and feel other sensations apart from the audio-visual experience.

If we are going to die and life is meaningless anyway, surely it is the natural condition?

As the second half of the film progresses, Christine appears to grow stronger as her misery gives way to a higher wisdom about her situation and that of the planet.

This could have been what he was aiming for in Antichrist, in which nature was a chaotic force that ‘reigned’ over the humans.

But here he seems a little more focused as wider cosmic forces in the shape of a rogue planet come to affect the central characters – but instead of shrill hysteria and genital mutilation we get a richer reflection on life and existence.

Both films could be seen as a therapy double-bill for the director – who has talked about his battles with depression over the last few years – but with Melancholia he seems to be taking his foot off the accelerator and his work feels all the better for it.

Coming across as a darker, more subversive version of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), it is a perfectly pitched antidote to the traditional ‘movie wedding’ (frequently a virus-like staple of US romantic comedies) and sprinkled with a pleasingly arch mood.

This is matched by some great locations and production design: the use of Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden is inspired, providing a visually interesting backdrop, with its immaculately tendered golf course, claustrophobic interiors and frequently stunning exteriors, which revolve around atmospheric night scenes of the ever encroaching blue planet.

Dunst gives a career-best performance, convincingly showing her character’s descent into depression and subsequent stoic acceptance of impending global doom, whilst Gainsbourg is equally strong as a more naïvely empathetic character.

Their chemistry as sisters is physically unlikely, but emotionally believable and as the film progresses they provide some of the best acting in a Von Trier film since Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1995).

Although he often gets criticised for torturing his female characters, he frequently manages to draw emotionally brave performances from them, unlike many directors working in the mainstream.

In the supporting cast, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling have small but juicy roles as bickering parents whilst Kiefer Sutherland brings considerable depth to his delusional rich, husband who struggles to keep up the veneer that everything will be OK.

The film could be seen as an extended metaphor for the depressed artist (namely Von Trier himself), in that no-one really believes Justine when she is ill and her advertiser bosses are always asking what her next project might be.

That is one valid interpretation, but its hard not see the film as Von Trier pointing out the craziness of polite society (ironically the people who go to see his films) and how it is the seemingly unhinged who cope the best when truly bad things happen.

Given that there is no evolutionary reason for depression, an ailment which often leads to self-destruction, perhaps it is a painfully valuable reminder of our mortality?

Such heady ideas are expressed with considerable skill as Von Trier interchanges a rough and ready visual style, with some stunningly beautiful sequences, which include helicopter shots and slow-motion tableau.

It almost provides a snapshot of his own career, as the rough Dogme aesthetic of his earlier work blends with a lush beauty that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro assists with some stunning digital images throughout – this was one of the first films to shoot on Arri’s Alexa camera – whilst the visual effects of the encroaching planet supervised by Peter Hjorth evoke an appropriate sense of wonder and awe.

All this marks a highpoint in Von Trier’s career, which is all the more shame that he undid a lot of that hard work by making some foolishly ill-placed jokes at the launch of the film in Cannes.

He clearly wasn’t being serious when he jokingly called himself a Nazi, said he understood Hitler and made some inappropriate remarks about Susanne Bier, as well as ‘planning a hardcore porn movie’ with Dunst and Gainsbourg.

But given the particular sensitivities still felt in France about the Holocaust and the instantaneous nature of modern news, it was an ugly episode in which Von Trier’s bad-boy act came back to haunt him as he was banned from the festival.

Typically, Von Trier has since played up his persona non grata status, but forget the off-screen nonsense and enjoy what is an unexpectedly beautiful vision of the apocalypse.


News Thoughts

The Sofia Coppola Mystery

How does news about a fake Sofia Coppola film spread on the web?

Pretty quickly as it turns out.

First, The Playlist (usually one of the better film news sites) spots what appeared to be the official Twitter account of American Zoetrope (Coppola’s usual production company) which ‘announced‘:

Happy to announce that Kirsten Dunst has agreed to be in Sofia Coppola’s new film ‘Secret Door’. Script is still being finished. Stay tuned!

However, it turned out that it was probably a hoax account. (Note that this was the only tweet on the account and it doesn’t appear to be linked to Zoetrope’s official site).

Then there was the 8 pages of a supposed screenplay that was uploaded to Mediafire:

The very idea of Coppola (or someone at Zoetrope) uploading part of her screenplay to the web and then announcing it to the world on Twitter seems highly unlikely to me.

There also appeared to be no mention of the story from trade sites such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter or Deadline (although searching on the traditional trades made me think they need to hire someone to build a more usable archive).

To their credit, The Playlist subsequently corrected their original story

“Sorry, Coppola fans, looks like we’ve been had by a hoaxer. When we ran the story yesterday, the account looked genuine enough, but subsequent tweets were more suspicious, in particular 8 pages of script ‘leaked’ onto the account, 8 pages of some of the worst writing we’ve ever seen (Sample: “It was he, I pondered most of”). With the legitimacy looking increasingly fishy, it’s now been confirmed that the account is a fake. We’re not quite sure who has the goddamn time to write a script pretending to be Sofia Coppola, but there we go. Apologies”

But a quick Google News search reveals that many sites picked up the original, uncorrected version of the story:

One site even said:

It’s extremely tough to write a news article when all the details are being kept secret.


But this whole affair does raise some interesting questions.

Does bad news stick, even if quickly corrected?

You could argue that the crowd-sourcing nature of sites like Twitter and Facebook, helped to quickly flag this as being a false story and that sites can quickly admit to honest errors (which in this case happened).

But are parts of the web just an unthinking copy-and-paste machine?

With large site owners like AOL relentlessly pressing for page views, maybe writers will find it hard to resist quickly feeding readers a diet of stories, which don’t always completely check out.

Can traditional outlets devoted to accuracy, like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, edit and fact check for several days? Probably not. There is some kind of balance to be struck, but the line seems blurry.

This isn’t just a blogger vs traditional journalist issue either.

When composer Maurice Jarre died in March 2009, some news organisations copied an erroneous quote planted on Wikipedia by a Dublin university student who, according to MSNBC, wanted to test “accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news”.

The online encyclopedia actually corrected itself quicker than many traditional outlets.

As Shawn Pogatchnik of the AP said:

Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.

What strikes me from the fake Sofia Coppola movie is the slippery nature of information on the web and the ease with which it was absorbed into the news cycle.

Think about it. Someone actually took the time to create a fake Twitter account for a production company, write 8 pages of screenplay and, presumably, alert some websites of it.

Like a cyber-pinball, that false information rattles around blogs, social media and possibly printed outlets too.

When it comes to information about films, perhaps things are even more confused as we live in an age where even documentaries are deliberately confusing people.

For a long time no-one was really sure if I’m Still Here was actually depicting Joaquin Phoenix having a real meltdown or spoofing how the media were covering a fake one.

Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop played similar games about the nature of modern art and the persona of its director, even to the point of mounting one of the most original Oscar campaigns ever.

At the same time, directors of major films are increasingly plugged into virtual engagement with their audiences.

Jon Favreau openly posts pictures from the set of Cowboys and Aliens, Duncan Jones responds to critics of Source Code, and Peter Jackson makes official announcements of The Hobbit from his Facebook page.

Even a traditional studio like Warner Bros played around with genuine and fake viral videos when marketing a blockbuster like Inception.

Although only a small fraction of the films total audience would have seen them, they presumably wanted to monitor reactions to the mystery surrounding the film, as well use the enigma of the film as a marketing tool.

It would strike me as odd if Coppola and Zoetrope actually did start an official Twitter feed on which to make announcements and maybe after this fake story they should, just to get their official voice out there.

But let’s go further down the rabbit hole.

Could it be conceivable that Sofia Coppola and American Zoetrope hired some kind of viral marketing guru to create a fake movie called ‘The Secret Door’?

Personally I don’t think so, but if they did would the poster look something like this?

Although I should stress the above image isn’t real, perhaps this whole episode highlights the immediacy of information in the modern age and how it might be used (or abused) by individuals, studios and filmmakers in the future.

Could some digital prankster actually make a fake Sofia Coppola movie, imitating her visual style, recreating marketing materials on Photoshop and then upload it to YouTube?

Since the rise of the web in the mid-to-late 90s, films like The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) have played around with the idea of ‘dual realities’.

But maybe they, the current batch of ‘fake documentaries’ and even a non-existent project like ‘The Secret Room’ also signify a growing cultural trend.

As we read our web connected devices aren’t we experiencing an uncertain virtual world, as we cautiously rely on information reproduced over a vast, digital echo chamber?

> Original story about The Secret Room at The Playlist
> More on Sofia Coppola at Wikipedia and the IMDb