Two of the world’s boldest and most adventurous filmmakers, Pedro Almodóvar and Lars von Trier, return in the waning days of 2011 with exciting new films that rank among the year’s best.
Pedro Almodóvar (Volver, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) has always joyously delighted in confounding our expectations. He uses the conventions of classic melodrama, but playfully subverts them with crazy plot twists, madcap characters, genre-bending and gender-bending. The result is a highly-sophisticated blend that allows him to combine the pure storytelling pleasure of Hollywood movies with the challenging ideas of modern art house cinema. His latest work, The Skin I Live In, is a Hitchcockian thriller about Dr. Robert Ledgard (a great performance from Antonio Banderas, working with Almodóvar for the first time in over twenty years), a wealthy and respected plastic surgeon who is keeping a beautiful young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) imprisoned in his house. As Robert compulsively watches over his captive, and obsesses over every detail of her appearance, we might think this is a twisted version of the legend of Pygmalion: A man trying to craft the perfect woman. However, Almodóvar’s mesmerizing film proves far more complex. With consummate skill, he weaves a stunning drama that is both a gripping tale of vengeance and a thought-provoking meditation on our complicated relationships with our own bodies.
No one else makes movies like Lars von Trier (Antichrist, Breaking the Waves, Dogville), which might delight or depress depending on your opinion of this most controversial of modern filmmakers.
His latest work is no exception. Melancholia is a mad fever dream of a movie, evoking a contentious swelter of emotions and ideas through gorgeous imagery, surging music and fantastic performances. The film is built around two catastrophes: An all-too-human wedding that goes horribly wrong and the possible destruction of the Earth in a collision with the planet Melancholia. The first half of von Trier’s epic documents the hilarious unraveling of Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding. Despite the best efforts of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s highly responsible sister, long-simmering family resentments and Justine’s ambivalence send this carefully planned event careening wildly out of control. The cherry on the top of this disastrous celebration is the discovery of an unusually bright light in the night sky, which proves to be Melancholia, a planet that is going to pass disturbingly close to Earth. The film grows quieter but more intense as von Trier follows the differing reactions of Claire and Justine to the possibility that life as we know it may not last much longer.
Kirsten Dunst was deservedly named Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for this performance. Dunst and Gainsbourg are ably supported by a great ensemble that includes Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt.
Lars von Trier has always been fascinated by the strange combination of irrationality, self-destructiveness and nobility that defines our species. This alternately side-splittingly funny and heartbreaking work is one of his finest explorations of that tangled mess known as the human condition.