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Cannes 2011. Rushes: "Melancholia", "The Day He Arrives"

Films by Lars von Trier and Hong Sang-soo.
Suffering from a vague script, vague performances, and even vaguer mise en scène, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia achieves a strange momentum towards the abstraction of scattershot filmmaking reminiscent, despite his new film's romantic grandeur—no one has quoted Wagner as vividly as this, not even Francis Ford Coppola—of his Dogme days.  After an illustrated prologue picturing exaggerated, slow motion tableaux of events to come, the film begins its first half, dedicated to Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, with a limousine bringing the newly married young woman and her husband up a road with such sharp turns that the story, like the couple's carriage, immediately gets stuck and is unable to move forward.  It is a fittingly weird and funny beginning for the darkly comedic wedding party that makes up the film’s first half, and which surrounds the fatally melancholy Dunst with figures from her life so absurd—Charlotte Rampling, mother, John Hurt, father, Udo Kier (stealing the movie) as a wedding planner (!), and Stellan Skarsgård as her boss—and so cartoonish that the context provided for her depression seems as fragmentary and ill-formed as the film’s handheld camera work and editing.  The second half of Melancholia focuses on Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her increasing alarm at the chances that a planet  (titular Melancholia, also the mental affliction of Justine) scheduled to pass very close to the Earth might crash into it despite scientific assurances from her husband (Keifer Sutherland).
This half, even though it takes place in the same uncharacterized and arbitrary country mansion as the opening wedding,  loses the unity of place and event in Justine’s story, drops most of the supporting cast, and peers with relentless, handheld curiosity at Gainsbourg as she struggles to express a tension that can exist only on the surface of the film.  Her child, her husband, and her life in the film’s unreal mansion setting has no texture of plausibility, and she hangs floating in the film like Dunst floated through the wedding and indeed as Earth is floating through space—all scheduled to collide with melancholia.  Dunst expresses a very powerful and sustained despair through each half's ordeal, but the film is lopsided with Claire’s family too generalized to provide insight into her anxiety, just as Dunst’s depression is impossible to place among the remnants of her life Trier barely sketches around her.
Indeed, the film feels nearly improvised, the lines happenstance and awkwardly phrased in English—witness Skarsgård’s insistence on a “tagline.”  Seemingly scripted and filmed on the fly, with copious CGI made to bookend the ladies' nervous mania with fatal, swoony grandeur, the film is made around one idea: that for one sister (half of a person) the end of the world is a party, wedding, family—people, society—and for the other, the end of the world is the uncertainty of the many possible indifferent catastrophes in such a large and powerless world—that is, a crisis of mental stability and faith.  Faces tell little beyond immediate emotional states, extended in duration, compressed in spaces, blurred and rendered general, anonymous, abstract by Von Trier’s slipshod filmmaking.  And it slips right over the surface of the film, seeing only superficial womanly anxiety—and the delirious, tragic romance of it—and not much else.
***
One of the loveliest, lightest films at Cannes this year, pensive yet often swept by quiet pleasures, was Hong Sang-soo’s delicately surreal The Day He Arrives.  It is a sparser Groundhog Day done by Hong, in black and white and with copious alcohol.  A young retired film director returns to Seoul and decides to meet his old friend, and before, during and after that encounter he runs into numerous other film makers—this surreal Seoul seems populated nearly entirely by production crew—drunkenly looks up his ex-girlfriend, and hangs around a bar whose owner looks exactly like—and indeed is played by the same actress as—his ex.  And then the next day comes, and it proceeds with déjà vu echoes as the previous one, yet with different turns of each encounter, results of each conversation—Hong’s cleverness is too subtle to make it clear time is repeating, and instead it just becomes slightly odd, like a jump in logic from a dream, that we never see our hero sleep, that each encounter seems similar to the previous night’s yet the characters seem to vaguely recall the past.
While many of Hong’s previous narratives can seem very structured, The Day He Arrives has a loose casualness to its repetition so that each day seems fresh—as if, indeed, the film is progressing, even when, in an atypical revelation, Hong’s hero never goes through the crisis or self re-assessment that concludes most of the director’s films.  Instead, we get slices: some banal walks and talks during the day, and some remarkably tender nights.
On the periphery of the director's endless walks we get a lovely series of revelations about supporting characters that are avoided or elided from one night but brought out in another: the director's friend, able to punch out of the narrator's egotistic focus on the story with a drunken outburst to a woman he secretly loves; the hero's ex keeps it together until a slip into neediness, asking for a cell number to keep in SMS contact; a woman listens to a man explain how he has a formula for accurately describing any woman he meets, and then proceeds to charm that woman in the same conversation (in the same shot!) using that very technique.  Even the weather seems to magically be summoned and dismissed as a variation created somewhere along a chain of the director's daily decisions (ones we never really see him make, at least not prominently). The snowfall frames some unusually pretty sequences of late night, semi-drunk romance that express a tactile emotional sensitivity rarely exhibited by this attentive and sly filmmaker.  Most sly of all: The Day He Arrives ends as ambiguously as it began, leaving one to imagine another night, another day, and indeed, with a filmmaker who so successfully and prodigiously makes films that are remarkably similar, we can imagine another Hong film, itself a variation on this one, and hopefully just as beautiful.
Maybe Lars is right – he needs to start drinking again. Then he can make films as good as Hong Sang-soo’s.

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