mel·an·cho·li·a [mel-uhn-koh-lee-uh, -kohl-yuh] – noun 1. a mental condition characterized by great depression of spirits and gloomy forebodings.
2. (often initial capital letter) the planet hiding behind the sun, having an equatorial diameter of 79260 miles (10x the size of Earth) and heading towards Earth, threatening the end of mankind.
This morning at the 64th Festival de Cannes, Lars von Triers’ MELANCHOLIA screened for press. Having seen his previous work (ANTICHRIST, BREAKING THE WAVES, and DANCER IN THE DARK are the films most memorable to me), I walked in prepared to be fucked with. Amongst a few things, von Trier is known for shock cinema and striking visuals. The most shocking thing about MELANCHOLIA is that he doesn’t tease the audience, but instead he guides them into the world of emptiness that weighs down on someone when their emotionally confused state has lead to them coming to a complete halt. Ironically, I walked out of MELANCHOLIA with a feeling of hope and understanding. MELANCHOLIA is a powerful piece of beautiful and haunting cinema.
MELANCHOLIA takes place in a mansion (with its own golf course) the size of a castle owned by millionaire scientist John (Kiefer Sutherland) and his wife, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The couple is throwing a wedding reception for Claire’s sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) in their home. When we meet the newlyweds, they are late to their own party and everyone has been anxiously awaiting their arrival. As the night progresses, we learn that something is very, very wrong with Justine - she’s not happy and it seems that there is nothing that can fill her emptiness. The night ends, everyone leaves (including Michael), and Justine, Claire, John, and their son Leo spend the next five days together in the mansion, wondering where Justine went wrong. An even bigger possible tragedy is on the horizon, however, as we learn that there is a planet ten times the size of Earth that’s been hiding behind the sun, called “Melancholia,” and it’s headed straight towards us, threatening the end of the world. As this newly discovered planet travels ever closer, Justine’s sadness changes, for better or for worse. MELANCHOLIA is not about the end of the world, but the end of a feeling: happiness. Everyone around Justine just wants her to be happy, but she can only feel everything but that. To understand sadness, you must feel it sometime in your life; von Triers’ heart is filled with sadness and we see it in his films. Unlike his previous works, in which he aimed for us to feel the pain, in MELANCHOLIA, he wants us to understand it. I would go as far as to say that this feels like his most personal film to date. Von Trier is known to create works that feels misogynist, but in MELANCHOLIA, things have taken a dramatic turn and it’s the women who are strong. Dunst’s Justine appears to be weak and helpless, but she is at war with her sadness - there’s a lot of fight in her. Dunst dresses herself in Justine’s melancholy and gives one hell of a performance. This is Dunst at her best - she’s brilliant and darling and the camera loves her. Charlotte Gainsbourg is now a von Trier alum, and it’s very apparent why: she can bring her desperation and depression down to a painful viewing experience, which is exactly what von Trier wants.
MELANCHOLIA also has a fairly large ensemble cast at von Trier’s disposal, but the most notable performances here are John Hurt as the sisters’ free-living father, Udo Kier as the embarrassed wedding planner, and Kiefer Sutherland as the reasonably irritated brother-in-law who’s too proud. MELANCHOLIA is oftentimes very hard to swallow, and we know from the first frame that our characters’ story will not continue past the last frame. There are movies that are so good, but so painful that it’s a breath of fresh air when the end credits begin. This is not one of those films. Only von Trier can create a terrific story about sadness that we want to see carry on past that last frame. Grade A+
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman
Studio: Film District
Since walking out of the Grand Lumière from seeing DRIVE, my mind has been racing. I’ve never watched a film and felt so conflicted on how I viewed it. I was battling myself, wanting to like this film but had some major issues with it. Did I love DRIVE? Did I hate it? Days after that theater exit, I could not get DRIVE out of my mind. DRIVE was driving me crazy. (Sorry - I’ll try to hit the brakes on the puns.) As Pauline Kael discussed in her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” all it takes is the smallest thing in a film for it to completely capture your heart. Something under the hood of DRIVE captured my heart; director Nicolas Winding Refn has admirably crafted a fine piece of retro-noir cinema.
Ryan Gosling is Driver, stuntman driver by day, getaway driver by night. Wherever his life ends up, driving must be in it. You will not catch him without his silver jacket with a large scorpion embroidered on the back - it’s his security blanket. He keeps to himself, having his employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston) handle all of his business deals. Driver’s life faces a head on collision when he falls for next door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband just got out of jail on good behavior. Driver is a rarity when it comes to being a gentleman, wanting to help a woman and her family to safety - including the jealous husband - rather than tangle himself in a love triangle. Shannon sees a lot of potential and money in Driver and convinces local mob boss Bernie Rose (a brilliant and vicious Albert Brooks) to loan him money to build the perfect stock car. Bernie’s ethnically-confused associate Nino (Ron Perlman) doesn’t want anything to do with this - he hates Shannon. Driver is a lonely cowboy - a silent warrior. He doesn’t have to say a word and you know exactly what he’s thinking. In order to make this movie work, you need an actor who can speak in high volume without saying anything. Gosling has really turned almost every performance he’s done in the last five years into award nominated roles. There’s a reason for this: Gosling is marvelous to watch on screen. He’s charming, tough, and smart. In BRONSON, Refn created poetic violence. With rich colors and a riveting theatre-like appearance, our scene of violence becomes beautiful. He brings that same vision to DRIVE in one very memorable scene which I do not want to spoil but do want to address - this scene alone is the reason why we go to see movies. Along with the scenes that will stick with me each time I talk about this film, Refn’s choice of music will always repeat in my head when I think of DRIVE. Using an ’80s keyboard pop influenced score by Cliff Martinez and electronic music by various artists, the music sets the tone and feeling for every scene its used in. When the beats calmly bump in the opening scene of the movie, don’t be surprised if you notice your feet quietly tapping along with them. What’s upsetting about DRIVE is the flimsy character development for a few of our key roles. Driver’s love interest, Irene (Carey Mulligan), can be missed with a blink of an eye. Mulligan has proved at her young age she can lead a film to Oscar nominations, so being a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her secondary character is a bit disappointing; I would have liked to see more of Irene. Perlman’s Nino doesn’t know if he wants to be taken serious or as a joke; as big and bad as we have seen Perlman in films like HELLBOY, ALIEN: RESURRECTION, and BLADE 2, seeing him overplay the stereotypical idiot gangster is slightly off-putting. What we know about Brooks’s Bernie is that he is a cruel man and will sacrifice anything and anyone threatening his name and empire. His scenes as this ruthless gangster are so terrifying and impressive that his screen time is satisfying enough. Brooks is mostly known as a comedian - a funny man whose characters always wind up in funny situations. Here he steps away from that typical character and mops the floor with most mob bosses we’ve seen on screen. I must address that I have not read the book (of the same name) this film was adapted from, so my nitpicks could possibly be dismissed if Refn built our characters based on how the book reads them. As you read this review, you see the reasons why I want to keep revisiting this film and the racetrack I call “excellent filmmaking” it keeps driving on. Grade: A+
There’s a reason why IFC Midnight (SUPER, STAKE LAND) picked up Justin Kurzel’s SNOWTOWN - it’s an impressive piece of haunting cinema. Disturbing and hard to swallow, Kurzel’s feature directorial debut seals the deal that his man will continue to have a career making movies. I tried to do a video interview with Kurzel at Cannes, but was off trying to get a sassy French woman to wine and dine me* while he was busy showing his film to distribution companies, so we settled for an email pass-off. Not sure if you’re aware of what SNOWTOWN is about, so read my review and then came back to this page to read the interview. In this interview, we discuss finding the right Jon Bunting, why Kurzel chose the tragic story of Snowtown, Australia, and how he broke the ice during some really difficult and awkward scenes. Enjoy!
GATW: SNOWTOWN is based on a true (and really fucked up) story. How difficult was it to stay true to the facts while creating your own spin to it?
JK: The screenplay was based on two books and also court transcripts. Shaun and I did our own research as well which filled in some more intimate aspects of the case. The events scripted are pretty close to the real events however you know with all films based on truth they are interpretations and the people in the film are always characterisations. Its important that you stay as close as possible to what happen but also be aware you are telling a particular story and the events and characters must fit the themes and ideas you are interested in.
GATW: Some of the brutal murders from Bunting didn’t make it into the film. What was the process of deciding which would make the cut and which wouldn’t? JK: Yeah, there were 11 murders that they were convicted for and some of the details presented in court about those murders were truly horrific. We made a decision at the beginning to not make the violence the leading character of the film like most Horror/Slasher films do. We wanted make sure whatever murder we expressed on screen was directly related to Jamies major turning point and intitiation. The murder of his brother to us was integral to Jamie’s psychological journey and for you to understand the hold which John had on him. Most of the other murders are suggested through tape recordings which we felt for powerful devices to communicate to the audience who was missing or had been murdered.
GATW: John Bunting is one of Australia’s most notorious killers. What was the process like finding the right person to accurately portray him?
JK: We knew from the beginning we didnt want to portray him in a one dimensional way, you know here comes the serial killer and you can pick him a mile off. What we found interesting was that John was a pretty normal bloke in the community, he was very sociable and he was able to win the trust of the community and the family very easily. So we wanted him to be charismatic, approachable, someone who was a good listener and wanted to be around people. Dan came in for an audition and had so many likable qualities. People really gravitate to Dan and he loves people. He makes you feel at ease and it was this quality especially at the beginning of the film which I felt was essential in understanding why the community looked for answers in John.
GATW: This appears to be Lucas Pittaway’s (Jamie) very first film. Some of his scenes are pretty uncomfortable and painful to watch. How did you break the awkwardness on set? JK: We made sure in rehearse we all got to know each other extremely well and made a pact that we trusted each other and for this time while filming we were prepared to be brave and go to places that were very confronting and dark. We also knew that when the scene finished we could hug, hold each other and be able to turn the tap off and come out of those scenes. Lucas was incredibly brave, in fact all the cast were and I am indebted to their boldness and dedication to finding a truth in their performances.
GATW: Like the brilliant ear-cutting scene in RESERVOIR DOGS, a lot of the violence happens off-screen, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination. What made you want to use that method vs. more visuals?
JK: It was our biggest debate at the beginning while writing as to what violence do you show and what do you suggest and it is a very subjective and difficult decision. How do you get people close to this kind of Brutality without losing them. To us we didnt want to sanitize the violence but we also needed it to be always connected to Jamies journey and point of view. The scene with the brother was always the most important in the film. It made an audience get a glimpse of a brutality rarely scene while also understanding why Jamie participated in his brothers murder and why John found power and satisfaction in taking someone’s life. My intention was for the audience to be taken to the edge of the cliff and to look into the abyss and hopefully feel as though they were still being held and not allowed to fall. But this is very subjective and violence on film is a visceral thing and everyone responds to it in different ways.
GATW: What made you decide to make SNOWTOWN as your first feature?
JK: I came from the 10 minutes away from where the events occured. I was extremely curious as to why something like this happened in a place i grew up in, where i spent my childhood. I think the script found a way of understanding how the community was implicated and affected which I had not known about before. The subject matter was just so compelling, I couldnt stop thinking about it or putting down the books, I just knew it was the film i needed to make.
GATW: The score is so fitting and perfect for the film. Can you discuss the process working with your brother for the music?
JK: Right from the beginning Jed and I knew the music had to inform the cut of the film and provide the very intimate perspective of the lead character Jamie Vlassakis. We didin’t want the music to be leading you through the film emotionally, it couldn’t be there to manipulate what to feel. It had to be much more impressionistic and provide the very tense and claustrophobic pulse of Jamie’s descent towards hell. Jed came up with the main Snowtown Pulse and it became so influential that it gave us a new beginning and end of the film. I think it is an astonishingly sophisticated score, which not only affects you intellectually but most importantly emotionally. Its a muscular, visceral score and integral to the psychological journey in the film
GATW: What’s next for Kurzel?
JK: I am developing a black comedy with my brother Jed who did the music for Snowtown which Warp Films are producing, hopefully we can make it next year.
Australian films have a large spot in my heart. This came about last year when I fell in love with THE LOVED ONES, RED HILL, HESHER, ANIMAL KINGDOM, and THE SQUARE - all Ozzie cinema. There’s just something about filthy revenge stories that captures my full attention. Just a few days ago I saw a new Outback Film, Justin Kurzel’s SNOWTOWN, which carries the recently popular Ozzie trend - revenge. SNOWTOWN is a disturbing and at times very hard to watch, but it’s fueled with rich acting and excellent storytelling. SNOWTOWN takes place in Snowtown, South Australia and is based on the true story of Australia’s most notorious killer to date, John Bunting. Our central character is Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), one of three brothers who is sexually molested by his trusting neighbor. They live in an area of Australia where you can get out on bail the same day for being a pedophile, but good luck finding a job if you’re caught stealing. When their mother finds out, she calls in Bunting (Daniel Henshall in a marvelous performance) to help her rid the neighbor from the neighborhood. What she didn’t know is Bunting didn’t have heckling revenge on his mind - he, along with Jamie, would go on a Pedophile vigilante killing spree, which becomes and unsettling chain reaction of violence.
SNOWTOWN was co-written and directed by Justin Kurzell, which marks his first feature. This is a film that needs a director who understands the story of the Snowtown murders and why they happened – nobody wants a pedophile to get off (no pun intended) a free man. Kurzell understands the difficult subject matter, and tells the story in a brave and daring manner. It’s not an easy one to make; what started as a story of justice ended up being a story of self-righteousness, killing people he chose, who were gay and obese - anyone he just did not like. Henshall’s take on Bunting is nothing short of creepy brilliance. He takes Jamie under his wing - like a father Jamie never had - manipulating and confusing Jamie. Jamie’s not sure to love him or stay far, far away from him. SNOWTOWN marks Pittaway’s first credited acting performance and I do not think it will be his last. Channeling ANIMAL KINGDOM’s Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville), Pittaway’s Jamie is quiet, reserved, and often unable to control his path in life. Unlike J, things do not get better for Jamie; in fact, they get far, far worse. Jamie is a character that needs an actor who can look emotionally unstable throughout the majority of the film and Pittaway nails it. We often want to someone, anyone, to get this young man out of the life he’s be born into, but seeing how helpless he is himself, the sympathy fades as the movie carries on. I did not know this film was based on a true story until the closing credits, which makes this story so much more terrifying. Kurzel crafted a raw feel to that story; and as brutal as the film is, I will be visiting SNOWTOWN again. Grade B
BEAR carries the same hilariously shocking tradition as SPIDER; Jack (played by co-writer/director Nash Edgerton) has good intentions with his pranks on his girlfriend Emelie (Teresa Palmer) but doesn’t have a filter with them and he winds up facing unplanned painful consequences. Edgerton started his career out as a stuntman, and these two films have a heavy influence on that trade. As I’ve said before, I love everything that Edgerton and his crew Blue-Tongue Films have made so interviewing him about BEAR just made sense. We caught up a few days before the festival ended at Screen Australia to talk about BEAR, the possibility of a SPIDER feature, and what he’s working on next. Check out the interview after the break.
Big thank you to Raffi Asdourian from The Film Stage for shooting this interview for me.