Norwegian Wood is a measured 140-minute adaptation of the Murakami novel about grief and longing that’s as quietly thrilling as it is funereal. Events transpire beyond a bubble of isolation in which our protagonist is trapped and every experience glances tracelessly across him – apart from his tragic relationship with a doomed girl, who is inexorably ruined once their mutual friend suicidally exits the film in the opening minutes. Murakami’s novel, still the best-selling novel inJapan, gets a deserving reimagining in this often visually astonishing paean to love’s hellish, tormenting possibilities. Norwegian Wood is both immensely bleak and euphoric, a blue-tinged spectral examination of the effects of devastating loss on one hand, and a lush, elegant hymn to growing into a new self and leaving a corrosive past where it belongs. Not that everyone here manages that.
The Ides of March does precisely what you imagine it will: offer a breezy soundbite snapshot of a vogueish element of the political process with added A-listers lending the uncomplicated script an esteem it perhaps doesn’t warrant. It wants Alan J Pakula status but settles for popcorn sophistication and is surely the kind of middle ground accessible-but-ambitious multiplex offering we could do with more of to help repel the sequel madness. Director George Clooney takes a backseat as a Democratic senator unwilling to compromise his principles on one level but more than happy to compromise those of others, as Ryan Gosling raises his game as a spin doctor-ish advisor who jumps ship, with cataclysmic consequences. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are typically excellent in support and Evan Rachel Wood is again radiantly perturbed in an absorbing enough film that eventually feels like an accomplished if unspectacular sum of parts failing to quite add up.
Midnight In Paris is another (rare) example of Woody Allen confirming he still has worthwhile work in him, and this is about as much fun as cinema in 2011 is going to get. It’s gloriously entertaining, indulgent stuff, with Owen Wilson strolling drunkenly across Paris, away from dull, totally unsuitable fiancée Rachel McAdams and, upon the chimes of midnight, into the 1920s and the serendipitious path of a number of heroes including the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddlestone is exactly how I imagine Fitzgerald was, which means nothing other than that, but provoked enormous personal glee), Hemingway, Stein, and Adrien Brody as a comedy Dali, amongst others. If you don’t enjoy Midnight In Paris, you’re dead.
Cold Weather is an intriguing and worthwhile micro-budget effort which suggests interesting future work from director Aaron Katz. An ex-girlfriend goes missing, and our hero, with sister in tow, does a bit of sleuthing, with some success, but with a bit of a caveat that might’ve been a little more thrillingly unpacked. The film is still admirable, pleasingly languid but too uneventful for such slight protagonists.
We Need To Talk About Kevin, an enjoyable, insubstantial film, is blighted from the off by two things in particular. The first being the overly provocative stance the author took in hypothesising every worst case parental scenario obstacle she could put in the way of a beleaguered protagonist, as some kind of vicarious experiment in tolerance and grief (the gifted director, Lynne Ramsay, is similarly troubled by adhering too stringently to the source material). The second being the fact that the latter incarnation of Kevin, as a late-teen Gucci model prowling the life of his mother for an opportunity to provoke torment, is completely ridiculous, over-stylized and, worse, constantly has you wondering what Placebo are up to nowadays. This is an overt symbolism-happy horror film with only a few chills, some beautiful camerawork, and a magnificent performance from Tilda Swinton, which is rather wasted. It’s enjoyable on a surface level it never strives to go beyond, a kind of infuriatingly provocative trifle.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which contains a level of subterfuge, intrigue, internecine chaos and thrumming disquiet that The Ides of March would kill for, also contains Gary Oldman’s best performance, which is almost distractingly good, and an absurd ensemble of great actors. Oldman is George Smiley, elegantly constricted, an inscrutable yet glaring, mesmerising presence, who is tasked with locating a double-agent in the ranks. This leads him, and his tonsorially top-hole accomplice Benedict Cumberbatch, into a few hornet nests and drably murky environments, straight out of a nightmarishly bereft, dust-swathed version of 80s Britain, as the miscreant is sought. Throughout, Oldman offers little clue as to what makes Smiley tick, but every nuance is so beautifully, tantalisingly eked out (and it helps that he has offered up such extravagantly volcanic performances prior) that you marvel, both at the apposite nature of the choice of characterisation and at the sheer subtle freight that Oldman exudes into every frame in which he’s present, as all those around him reap the rewards of such solid centrifuge, particularly Mark Strong, never better than here.
And The Ward has John Carpenter still at it, despite a sequence of late disasters, and he does enough here to wrest back a little of his reputation for hefty cheap thrills. Amber Heard, who is basically an angrier, more interesting version of Elizabeth Banks and always puts you in mind of a disappointed cheerleader, is pulled away from a burning house by the cops and thrown into an ITV lunatic asylum, featuring the Bella Emberg version of Nurse Ratched and a handful of other disparate ciphers that beg you to guess the backstory and the ‘twist’ that’s far too easily apparent. It’s overcooked to charred illegibility at times but it’s largely fun, as Carpenter still, despite all the obstacles he puts in his own way, makes the loosest, least substantial premise work by hitting the inarguable dramatic spot often enough to elude your cynicism.
There’s a typically indictful moment late on in Melancholia in which Kiefer Sutherland’s glib Republican sets the camera up for a shot of him and his son on a lush, expansive lawn. Behind them, Melancholia, a planet set for a collision with Earth which will destroy all life, is approaching and vies with the moon for starry-skied attention. He sets the timer and rushes back into the frame, hovering proprietarily behind his son. They both smile, clearly delighted. If there’s one scene that encapsulates Melancholia, possibly Von Trier’s best film, it’s this: self-regarding notions of ‘timelessness’, self-preservation and the accumulation of objects in the face of annihilation is still irresistible. Marital partners, photos of nearing planets, houses. Unless, that is, you’re Kirsten Dunst’s recently disastrously wed depressive.
The film begins with a beguiling, disorienting opening montage, in which we have Dunst looking beyond us as birds plummet to the earth behind her and sister Charlotte Gainsbourg, son clasped to her, falls to sodden golf course turf, her Munch expression slowly worsening. There are a series of colour-saturated, surreal images, such as Dunst straining from right to left, in full wedding garb, seemingly rooted to the turf, effecting a gloriously futile and beautifully staged metaphoric exit – from what we are yet to understand. A carefully-framed horse slowly falls, redolent of Kubrick for some reason (Barry Lyndon?). Dunst is perplexed and catatonically bewitched as wisps of electricity plume from her fingertips. Then, shots of space, constellations and the abyss of unreciprocal chaos. All this in slow-mo to the heady, unequìvocally rousing strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. These are impressionistic stabs at grandiloquence, and provide an extravagant, impressively daring and epic foregrounding that immediately prompt comparison with Malick’s recent Tree of Life.
We’re soon inside the wedding limo with Alexander Skarsgård and Dunst, giddy with conspirational jocularity, despite their driver failing to negotiate tight country-road corners. Upon arrival at a remote chateau (at which a lavish wedding ceremony in their name is already underway), where we will remain thereafter as the slow thrum of impending disaster builds, Dunst is initially unassailably amused but dutiful at the pained recriminations as to her giddy tardiness from sister Charlotte Gainsbourg and bounderish brother-in-law Kiefer Sutherland. Dunst is a hyper, distant presence in the opening throes, an oblìvious lightning rod to the internecìne grumblings in her midst. Best man Stellan Skarsgård makes a self-gratified speech as Von Trier’s camera work expertly conveys mid-drunk swagger. Thereafter, Sutherland distractedly chomps on food whilst fairly obvious nemesis and mother-in-law Charlotte Rampling expounds, in rebuttal to father-in-law Hurt’s goading, on her hatred of marriage.
As planet Melancholia becomes more prevalent in the darkening sky, we have the groom’s speech: Alexander Skarsgård perfectly capturing the nervy delusions of the smitten man with dire skills of perception. His vulnerability is his ego, and his jitters are aptly countered by Dunst, who wills on the creaking fantasy as an inevitable doom lingers in her gaze. She wanders in and out of proceedings whenever the façade slips and turmoil holds increasingly fervent sway. There is a sense that her unpredictability has been factored in, and this is a ceremony at which she is, unusually, not always the focal point. Von Trier constructs the film skillfully to place you firmly within her perspective, which is one of assuming a series of guises and postures that belie her inner state, until the inevitable crash. So you never feel part of the unfolding jamboree, as she doesn’t. You vicariously take in the distant theatrics of your own wedding. ‘You’d better be goddam happy’, as Sutherland says at one point. ‘You got any idea how much this wedding cost?’ He also demands, ‘How many holes are there on this golf course?’ of Dunst, who says ‘18’, which is enough to provide a moment of grim approval (all the more potent later on as we encounter the ‘19’th…).
Skarsgård can’t, or doesn’t want to, see behind the wedding veil. He bounds on with the happy delusion, at one point producing a photograph of a plot of land he’s bought for Dunst, which awaits an impossible future. ‘Maybe we can have a swing hanging from a tree?’ he confirms, rather than suggests. Dunst’s response is a non-commital placation: ‘I’ll keep the photo with me at all times’, just prior to leaving it behind as she slips out of the room, a painful, compressed seal of marital doom. She is soon re-arranging books on display, a simple compulsive act of control to quell the downswing, a desperate, rushed, trivial intervention indicating a change in psychological equilibrium, and she’s inexorably on the way to over-aware capitulation, confiding as she does in Gainsbourg: ‘I smile and I smile and I smile,’ to which the latter rejoinders unhelpfully with ‘You’re lying to us!’ Mother Rampling is somewhat more sympathetic. ‘We’re all scared. Get the hell out of here.’ Dunst is soon aborting the consummation of her marriage before forcibly having sex with someone else on the golf course, and in an incredibly seductive moment, basking in the glow of the ‘flyby’ planet, stretched out naked on an embankment, a parallel prelude to the imminent inter-planetary ‘dance of death’, as Gainsbourg looks on, spellbound, a realisation of something lacking in herself beautifully suggested by the disappointed-child-faced actress. This marks the point at which Gainsbourg’s air of grim stewardship falters, and a role-reversal is soon underway, as she procures drugs to endure their shared crisis, Dunst by now emptied and assured.
It is, in particular, a brilliant, untethered-yet-controlled performance from Dunst, surely a career-best. From blank glee to silent horror, she perfectly encapsulates the behavioural cues of someone trudging through a marriage and a life beset by uncontrollable demons, never more so than frozen in torpor in a bath as the ceremony continues to unfold during another of her intermittent absences. She evokes a sense of the embattled heroine amidst an unseen maelstrom, repelling an incomprehensible everything by hiding far within herself. Melancholia represents a release for her, and as it hurtles closer, and as she goes from a kind of beatific denial through breakdown to icy equanimity, she is eventually composure’s epitome as the end nears.
(Aside: A brilliantly employed crude metal loop extended on the end of a branch which tracks the nearing planet’s proximity is surely the only Dogme-esque borrowing. This is otherwise far too honed and stylish to bear too much resemblance to ‘Festen’. There are also direct references to Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad that are welcome and relevant, death being the real protagonist of both, spectral humans no match for the onslaught of time. And horses tensely clopping around stables (before appropriating an eerily calmdisposition) is maybe a bit obvious for such a post-modernist.)
Dunst ends euphoric and baffled, beset by wonderment and perplexity, not merely at her and everyone else’s fate, but at the triviality of humanity, pedantic and parochial even at death’s advance. There is no personal sadness, just a reflective resignation. ‘A glass of wine and Beethoven’s Ninth’ is a ‘piece of shit’ way to go, which is one withering way to put it.
I read the other day that Lars Von Trier was a fraud. To many critics, adopting the correct stance in the face of unfortunate media tomfoolery seems paramount. Meanwhile, this is the best distillation of the director’s misanthropic musings yet, in what is easily the film of the year thus far. If ‘Life is only on Earth. And not for long’ then I’m delighted that Von Trier is here to help us face up to our lot with his unique and unmissable take.