Press screenings for the 2011 New York Film Festival are underway – a full week in actually; still a month to go of Monday to Friday morning events, so I’ll be busy for a bit.

I plan to review much of what I see, whether it can be classified as “black cinema” or not, or whether it has black talent in prominent roles in front of or behind the camera. If I were to limit myself to that criteria, the only 2 films that would really fit are Le Havre, and S&A favorite Shame – 2 films we’ve covered on this site.

I’ll save my review of Le Havre for a later date; let’s just say I wasn’t fully cognizant during the screening I attended this week (what can I say… long days, short nights); but plan to catch it during the general screening when the festival officially opens at the end of this month, and will review it then.

Steve McQueen’s controversial, though very-well received Shame doesn’t screen for the press until the 1st week of October, almost exactly 2 weeks from today actually; and you know I’ll be there! Can’t miss that party 🙂

The most prominent film I saw this week was Danish auteur Lars Von Trier’s apocalyptic Melancholia, which stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård and others.

For films like this that, we could say, don’t fit the criteria I mentioned above, I’ll try to keep my reviews briefer than usual.

A beautiful film about the end of the world” is Melancholia’s tagline, and I think that just about says it all; or as I said in my 2-word Twitter review right after yesterday’s screening, “beautifully depressing,” because it is.

First, I’d say if you’re not already familiar with Von Trier’s work, this probably won’t be my recommended introduction; actually, in thinking about it, I’m not even really sure which I’d suggest you start with because, quite frankly, each is an experience entirely its own. Not that there aren’t running themes throughout his work, but I’ve watched most of his films, and there always seems to be something distinctively different from one to the next.

Brutality is a commonality you’ll find throughout his work; but not necessarily physical brutality; also psychological/emotional – not only inflicted by and onto characters within his films, but also felt by his audience. One thing they are not is forgettable – not to me anyway.

Von Trier has previously categorized his films as falling into thematic and stylistic trilogies; and if you saw his last film, Antichrist, which also starred Charlotte Gainsbourg, you’ll notice some similarities to Melancholia, from lead female characters suffering some form of mental illness (depression), right down to an unmistakable scene in which a completely nude Kirsten Dunst lies on her back on an exterior grassy slope, at night, facing the sky – a scene that immediately conjured up a similar moment in Antichrist, with a completely nude Charlotte Gainsbourg, also on her back, lying on an exterior slope; the big difference being that Gainsbourg’s character is masturbating quite ferociously (taken out of context… see the complete film).

Yes, Trier doesn’t shy away from the explicit, whether violence or sexuality. Oh those sinful, perverse European filmmakers 🙂

Although his extremes are usually more psychological.

All that to say that Melancholia could very well be the second film in Von Trier’s current trilogy; Antichrist being the first.

Trier was reportedly inspired to make the film after a bout of depression he suffered, and the insight he gained from that. This, some will recall, was a similar inspiration he gave for the first film in this *trilogy* – Antichrist. So, maybe we can call this Lars Von Trier’s “depressive trilogy;” although, quite frankly, you could place several of his past films under that umbrella.

I think Freud would have loved Von Trier as a patient; his usually unfiltered style – both his person, and his films – certainly make him somewhat ideal for psychoanalysis 🙂

24 hours later and I’m still not sure what to make of Melancholia. Is it depressing? Yes; look at its title. But I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. I want to be affected, consumed; and if the material is intended to challenge me in that way, and I am, then it’s done its job.

As with most Von Trier films, the acting is strong; wonderfully naturalistic performances. There’s an improvisational quality that gives the film an engaging authenticity. And as a nod to the film’s performances, Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where the film made its debut.

Melancholia is dialogue-heavy, though nothing like any of Woody Allen’s films. The first hour – an interior wedding reception scene, as family and friends of the bride and groom *dance* (literally and figuratively), echoes Von Trier’s former Dogme 95 classmate, Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant Festen (The Celebration); though it doesn’t quite match Festen’s effectiveness.

Its other most memorable quality, aside from the performances, is its cinematography and production design. Recalling my 2-word review, and the film’s tagline, the word “beautiful” says it all, but not quite. “Beautiful” feels so broad and simple. I’m searching for a better, more descriptive word, but can’t think of one at the moment. The film’s Images (particularly its opening and closing moments, as well as others scattered within it) are equally lush and stark; painterly and ominous.

The location is a coastal Swedish castle, though just for the exterior sequences. About 50% of the film is shot on the outside to take advantage of the view and scenery. Interior scenes, the other half of the film, were filmed in a studio, also in Sweden. The camerawork – mostly handheld, but fluid and deliberate.

Given all that visual information, I found myself constantly searching for meaning in everything; symbols, metaphors… peeling back layers that may or may not have been there, thinking that what I was watching was either something deeply thoughtful, layered, and complex, or just another case of the “Emperor’s new clothes” – hollow ostentatiousness.

As I said, over 24 hours after seeing it, I’m still digesting the film, so I can’t really say at this point where exactly I stand on it. I want to see it again knowing what I know now, having seen it the first time.

At over 2 hours long, it is plodding; your patience will definitely be tested. And its gloomy subject matter doesn’t help.

But, in short, a visually stunning, well-acted, grim, laborious work from Von Trier.

So, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. However, I’ll tell you that I’m sure I’ll remember it, unlike much of the other films I saw this year.

One of the Cannes Film Festival’s most polarizing films, as is often the case with Von Trier’s works, I expect that to continue when the film becomes available on VOD on October 7th, and in theaters on November 11th.

So, that’s the gist of it; I plan to see it again.

Trailer below: