Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rob White: Interview with Manuel Alberto Claro

Interview with Manuel Alberto Claro
by Rob White
Film Quarterly

Cinematographer for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Manuel Alberto Claro was born in Santiago, Chile in 1970. His family moved to Denmark in 1974, after the Pinochet coup. Having graduated from the European Design Institute, Milan, he worked in his twenties as a photographer’s assistant in Copenhagen and New York. At age 27, he changed tack and studied cinematography at the Danish National Film School. His second feature in his new professional capacity, Reconstruction (Christoffer Boe, 2003), gained the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, and Claro’s career has gone from strength to strength. Melancholia won the award for best film at the 2011 European Film Awards, with Claro taking the cinematography prize. He is due to collaborate again with von Trier on the director’s next project, The Nymphomaniac.

“My aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves,” Claro told Idol Magazine, adding that his professional role model is Harris Savides, whose credits include Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007) and Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005): “If you can create poetic images, full of texture and emotional presence, out of something trivial, then you are good,” said Claro.

Melancholia has its own wedding and last day, and neither event ends in celebration. The marriage between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) goes off the rails before it can even be consummated (Justine prefers a roll in the golf-bunker sand with one of Michael’s colleagues), and Melancholia is bookended by slow-motion collisions between the eponymous renegade planet and Earth. Yet von Trier’s anti-disaster film is neither tragic nor miserable. “When I left the theater and exited out into Cannes, I felt light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy,” wrote the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman after a festival screening. My own reaction was rather similar. Despite its chaotic nuptials and global wipeout, Melancholia does not induce melancholia, at least if Freud’s description of the state in “Mourning and Melancholia” is to be taken as gospel: “profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love.”

Von Trier’s wry DVD commentary (in conversation with University of Copenhagen professor Peter Schepelern, included on the U.K. edition published by Artificial Eye) often zeroes in on transient pleasures, such as the improvised moment when Udo Kier, in the role of the thin-skinned Wedding Planner, lumbers after a flaming paper lantern as if out of empathy for the object’s own flimsy epidermis. The director also rues small infelicities that most viewers would never notice, such as CGI complexion-smoothing (“skin fixes”) that he now considers unsatisfactory. Since he also admits to so-called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, perhaps his focus on minutiae should be classed as pathological persnicketiness—but that would be to prefer armchair psychoanalysis to the beautiful variegation of Melancholia, to which Claro’s cinematography contributes so much.

It is an eccentric, rogue film that never obeys the usual rules of stylistic and emotional consistency. Paradoxes and incongruities abound from the start: the miniature drama of Justine opening her eyes against a background of avian rainfall is juxtaposed with a cosmic conflagration rendered as one liquescent heavenly body plunging into another. And if von Trier’s film embraces sci-fi, Wagner, uncanny tableaux, homages to Bergman and Tarkovsky, Dogme-style handheld jitteriness, there is also a long take of summer quiet as Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) dozes which is reminiscent, as Schepelern suggests during the commentary, of Rohmer’s bittersweet idylls. To dwell on such a detail, and to go further and think it more notable than the ensuing celestial firestorm, might after all involve a kind of melancholy, though one quite unfit for Freudianism.

To Read the Interview

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