Friday, 8 July 2016

Melancholia (1989)

Melancholia is a rather proficient political thriller despite not being particularly thrilling. Anyone looking for a straight commercial thriller should move along; this is strictly existential stuff about a former idealist who is reawakened from his respectable wilderness and returned to a previous commitment he once held for direct political action.

Jeroen Krabbé stars as David Keller, a successful art critic living in a kind of self-imposed exile in a London he does not care for. Once a product of Germany's radical counter culture, Keller's activism was much admired by his contemporaries back in 1968. Twenty years later and Keller is a taciturn, disillusioned figure living a half life. He may have all the trappings of success, but he also has the tell-tale engraving that is Dürer's 'Melencolia I' on the wall of the swanky flat he resides in alone and a drink problem. He is the very embodiment of ennui whose days only seem briefly enlivened by his friendship with an old flame Catherine played by Susannah York and the harmless crush her daughter Rachel (Kate Hardie), whose own political conscience regarding animal rights and anti-vivisection is being awakened, has on him.

One evening he receives an unexpected phone call that catalyses him from his moral inertia; a voice from his past in Hamburg, Manfred (Ulrich Wildgruber) informs him that Vargas, a torturer of Pinochet's Chile, is visiting London for a conference. Manfred persuades Keller that he is ideally placed to assassinate the sadistic fascist for the cause and puts him in touch with one of Vargas' victims Sarah Yelin (British actress Jane Gurnett surprisingly convincing enough as a Chilean), whose husband was also horribly murdered by Vargas.

The film is set over the course of five weeks (scenes are split into chapters detailing the action on five consecutive Fridays) and focuses on Keller's wrestle with the ideals of his youth and the hollow lifestyle he now leads, whilst raising questions on the use of violence to prevent further violence. Once Keller meets with Sarah, and hears for himself her experiences, he knows what he must do. However, Manfred has had a change of heart; believing Vargas to now be of more politically more alive, as they hope to change US foreign policy regarding Latin America and Pinochet's regime. But it's too late to stop Keller now. His mind is made up...

Written and directed by Andi Engel, Melancholia proved to be his only venture into film. It seems like a personal piece, indeed Engel was a German born, London based art critic and exhibitor with a political past, so we must presume that once the itch had been scratched, Engel was satisfied. He delivers the tension beautifully in the film's thriller elements and captures the contemplative side with a real atmospheric aplomb, along with excellent location work in London and Hamburg. He also has a great leading man in the elegantly weary looking Krabbé, who convinces both as Keller the arty type, and as Keller the ruthlessly efficient assassin for a cause. he helps personalise the issues in the most wonderfully subtle, underplayed manner that is totally in keeping with a film that explores its provocative themes in a mature and intelligent manner. 

Writer/director Andi Engel with Jeroen Krabbé on set

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