Recently I discovered the work of an amazing photographer called Nick Rochowski. He’s made a photo series called ‘The Liminal Points Project’. In this series he photographs scenes out in the woods at dusk & night. Not only are these photos beautifully sharp depictions of the woods, with great dynamic range and atmosphere, he gives them an other worldly vibe by integrating strange light sources into his scenes. Light sources which have no apparent natural source. I instantly fell in love with this series. I’m a sucker for moody, surreal images that seem to exist on the border between the real and the surreal, and these photos did exactly that.
So how does such a photo relate to my One Shot? You’ll see when I show it! I feel Rochowski’s photo’s are born from the same blood as my One Shot of this post. But before delving into that one shot, let’s first zoom in on the movie I picked it from; Melancholia (2011), from Lars von Trier.
Melancholia is a typical von Trier movie in that its filled with depression, sadness, grand ideas, complex and volatile female characters and raw emotion. But it’s also not a typical von Trier movie in that its a sort of science-fiction movie about the end of the world. Usually von Trier focusses more on small-scale drama, and them boosts it into epic proportions by means of his storytelling. His most famous examples of this are Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003).
That said, before Melancholia, his most recent film was Antichrist (2009), which can easily be categorized as a horrorfilm. And Dancer in the Dark is a musical, so maybe the science fiction element of Melancholia was to be expected. Von Trier apparently likes to experiment in different styles and genres.
Still, for most of its runningtime Melancholia plays like a typical von Trier-drama. You follow the story of a girl, Justine, who is celebrating her marriage with her family in a large mansion in the countryside. Pretty soon the idealistic setting deteriorates as turmoil amongst the family grows. Justine, especially, circles into depression during the weekend and comes into conflict with her more stable sister Claire.
Before long, the marriage is over and done, and the party follows in its wake. What’s left is Justine and her sister’s family, staying in the mansion and coping with Justine’s depressed state. It’s only then that slowly the science fiction story comes alive as a wandering planet appears on the horizon (named Melancholia) and threatens to crash into earth…
Von Trier’s films are often harrowing emotional experiences that can leave you unsettled and maybe even scarred. Most famously, in Antichrist, the viewer was forced to follow a couple turn on each other and explore the deepest and darkest depths of the human mind as they each turned to commit horrible acts of mutilation on each other.
But in Melancholia, I feel von Trier has found a nice balance between an emotionally complex and difficult story and making it watchable. Even though it’s a story about the end of the world, von Trier approaches it with a kind of mysterious and magical touch that betrays maybe even optimism.
von Trier & Claro
Beyond the narrative of the film, Melancholia is also nothing less than staggeringly beautiful in its cinematography. Von Trier enlisted cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro. Claro actually started his career in stills photography and his talent in composing still-frames is clearly visible in Melancholia. The film opens with a ten minute prologue that contains almost exclusively still-like images foretelling the events of the movie. They are filmed with high-speed cameras, creating incredible slow motion shots with only the slightest hints of movement.
Those shots are each and everyone little works of art, filled with incredible compositions, color and lightning. They feel almost computer generated, but are all filmed on location with tons of artificial lightning (though they are all graded digitally of course). Set to a soundtrack from Richard Wagner it sets an incredible mood of mystery, dread and anticipation.
They all would qualify as a legitimate One Shot, were it not for the fact that they all are detached from the main narrative. They are teasers for what’s to come, and most reappear in adjusted form later on in the film, but they are not really a part of the main movie. To me, that’s an important ingredient for qualifying for a One Shot inclusion, the shot needs to be a real part of the storyline.
But fear not; Melancholia is filled with tons of other magical shots throughout the main narrative, and there is one in particular that sent shivers down my spine, and reminded me of the Rochowski photographs, and it’s this one:
Story wise, this shot is from the final part of the film, where the planet Melancholia is approaching earth at rapid pace and the fear is rising it might hit earth. Whereas Claire fears an impending doom, Justine seemingly embraces it, as there is no joy for her in her live. Death seems like a better deal to her. Nowhere is this attraction of Justine to the planet Melancholia, and its tie-in with death and finality, more beautifully expressed as in this shot.
One night, Justine rides out into the woods and strips off her clothes to bathe in the blue light of the planet, which is now looming large over earth. It’s an act of eroticism and submission, tying to idea of death and destruction to pleasure and seduction. In this shot it becomes fully clear that Justine has shifted her desires towards death, and is willing to leave earth, her life, or in general, life, behind her.
What attracts me visually to this shot, is it feels like a surreal painting, while at the same time knowing it is a real location. They used a sort of unnatural lighting to push the scene into the surreal, not only with the ‘moonlight’ falling on Justine’s naked body, but also the whisps of light seen in the distance.
The whole seen looks like a painting from a Dutch master like Rembrandt, as its filled with such detailed shadows and asymmetrical spots of illumination. It really is a dreamscape that catches your eye and never lets it go.
Melancholia is filled with magical cinematography but this shot strikes the balance of being beautiful and being narratively significant, while at the same time creating such a strong image, you needn’t watch the movie to appreciate it. To me, that’s art!