Thursday, January 5, 2012

Melancholia

Grade: 79 (B+)

Lars von Trier’s new film Melancholia has the most striking opening of any film of 2011. The film’s first eight minutes feature a series of slow-motion sequences of lead actresses Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg experiencing strange phenomena as a large blue planet races toward the Earth. Gainsbourg is frantic, Dunst dispassionate. It is clear that the world is about to end, but the two have wildly polarized responses. Their reactions, along with the blue planet’s slow race towards earth (with which it eventually collides and destroys), make for a hauntingly beautiful sequence, all set to Wagner’s exquisite prelude to Tristan and Isolde. Melancholia never manages to top its grand opening, but it’s yet another worthy entry to von Trier’s fascinating filmography.

Justine (Dunst) is a new bride, and her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) seems to be truly in love with her. This does very little to lift her spirits, however: Justine suffers from severe depression, and any joy in her life can’t overcome the crushing weight of her melancholy. Her guests don’t help: her mother (Charlotte Rampling) hates the whole concept of marriage and makes her view well known; her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) cares deeply for Justine but is clearly frustrated by her problems; Claire’ husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is obsessed with money and furious at how little Justine seems to appreciate how much he spent on her reception; Justine’s boorish boss (von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard) hounds her for not completing something; even the wedding planner (Udo Kier) seems so disgusted with her problems that he can barely look at her.

The film’s second half takes place some time later, as Justine, nearly catatonic with depression, stays with Claire. Claire can barely get Justine to bathe or eat, but soon it won’t matter. Melancholia, a large blue planet, is moving towards earth, and it’s clearly going to be a beautiful sight. But despite John’s assertion that everything will be fine, Claire worries that it may crash into Earth, destroying her, her son, and everything she knows. She’s right, and she’s soon gripped with fear and anguish as she purchases suicide pills for her family. Justine, however, has no fear: she even goes nude sunbathing in the moonlight. She is at peace with the fact that the world will end, and that all knowledge of life will vanish.

Gainsbourg is strong as always, proving that she can take whatever von Trier dishes out (as if anyone who saw 2009’s truly unhinged Antichrist could doubt it); she is seemingly more balanced than most von Trier characters, but the threat of imminent destructions pushes any reasonable human being to the brink. The supporting cast is as colorful as in any von Trier film, but Dunst is the true revelation here. She never overplays her depression, but rather lets the weight of the world hang on her. When Justine cries that her food “tastes like ash”, it’s completely believable. When she argues that Earth is evil and that it deserves to be destroyed, it’s easy to see why she believes it. It’s a refreshing role for her and a welcome change from the naïfs that populate many of von Triers other films.

Von Trier’s films Melancholia with handheld cinematography often reminiscent of his earlier, grungier films (Breaking the Waves seems to be an influence on the wedding sequences). Yet the film is also one of his most lavish, filled with gorgeous special effects as memorable as any this year. The film is clearly influenced by von Trier’s own struggle with depression, and the film makes no pretensions of taking science seriously; it’s an artist coming to grips with his own demons via art. For such a personal movie, it doesn’t quite have the same emotional gut-punch that von Trier’s finest films (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) often do, perhaps because it doesn’t feature a wide-eyed naïf as the lead. But it’s a remarkable film all the same, and another clear sign that von Trier is one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers working today.

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