Melancholia is the visually stunning, apocalyptic new film from boundary-pushing Danish director Lars Von Trier. The movie is a psychological disaster story about nothing less than the end of world. The title references the personal depression that starts unraveling a newly-wed bride, played to great acclaim by Kirsten Dunst. Melancholia is also the name of a giant planet that has appeared in the sky and is poised to crash into the earth.
The film boasts a sumptuous surface beauty, set against the existential unease and foreboding of the underlying plot. Both are expertly captured by director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro, who combines stately compositions with fluid, hand-held camerawork and sophisticated lighting. Melancholia was the big winner at the recent European Film Awards, the continent’s version of the Oscars. Claro got the award for best cinematography and the film won for best picture and production design.
Melancholia begins with a hyper-romantic eight-minute prologue made up of a haunting series of painterly tableaux that surrealistically foreshadow the rest of the movie. Following the static opening, Melancholia switches gears. A high-spirited Justine (Dunst) and her new husband belatedly arrive in high spirits at the grand country house of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), where guests have gathered for a festive wedding reception. The atmosphere soon sours as family tensions flare and relationships fray. Justine can no longer hold it together and spirals into depression.
DP Claro photographed the brilliantly-lit, golden-hued scene (Von Trier wanted an over-the-top Danielle Steel feel) with a panning and probing hand-held style. “The camera doesn’t know what’s going on, so it has to search and often arrives just a little bit late,” he says. “Lars wants the camera to react to what’s going on like in a documentary. He wants the camera to be spontaneous, just as he wants the actors to be spontaneous.”
The film’s budget was ample enough to give Claro the opportunity to utilize two state-of-the-art cameras. The film was one of the first to be captured with the new Arri Alexa digital camera, which became available just prior to the start of shooting. For the succession of super-slow-motion tableaux that open Melancholia, the DP employed the Vision Research Phantom HD Gold, which shoots at 1,000 frames per second.
The painterly images – Justine in her wedding dress floating Ophelia-like down a stream filmed with lily-pads; looking at flares of electricity leaping from her fingertips; standing amidst dead birds raining down on her – are careful composites of multiple captures by the Vision, sometimes at different times of the day, to produce dramatic lighting effects. To perfect the images, Claro also worked with visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth whose main task was creating the approaching planet.
The film was shot in Cinemascope. “The wide-screen format helps make the film very cinematic,” observes Claro. “It’s easy to create very dynamic compositions, and it’s wonderful for scenes with a lot of actors and faces together because it diminishes the need for a lot of cross-cutting.”
For the first week of the Melancholia shoot, Von Trier was the camera operator, before passing the responsibility on to Claro. “Getting to work with Lars was like a dream come true,” says the DP, whose ambition to collaborate with Denmark’s best-known director stretches back 15 years to when he graduated from the Danish National Film School. (Born in Chile, hence the Latin name, Claro moved to Denmark at the age of four). DP Claro, 41, is set to repeat as a collaborator with Von Trier as DP on his next project, The Nymphomaniac.