Friday, December 2, 2011

Melancholia Movie Review

Leave it Lars von Trier to start a film with the apocalypse. As a mysterious planet roughly the size of Jupiter hurtles towards Earth in the opening montage of Melancholia, scenes on the ground involving Justine and Claire are almost frozen in time using super slow motion photography to create an otherworldly effect as if we’re watching paintings in motion. Then we see our beautiful blue planet swallowed up by the massive celestial object looming over it. The world ceases to exist in that moment.

He’s got nowhere to go but up, you figure. Of course not! This is the director who specializes in depictions of gang rape and genital mutilation as the climaxes of his films. Judging by his films alone we might label him a manic depressive. Truth be told, the most interesting images he puts on the screen occur in those first minutes before there’s any narrative to speak of. They are breathtaking and mesmerizing in their majesty, especially as accompanied by the bombast of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which helps define the sequence as a kind of operatic prelude.

By doing away with the suspense of whether or not the world will end in the film, von Trier is able to place the focus on the relationships of the characters and how they react under dire circumstances. Justine and Claire are sisters played by Kirsten Dunst (winner of the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for the most grown up role she’s played) and Charlotte Gainsbourg, respectively. The occasion is Justine’s wedding, which has been organized and paid for by Claire and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Apparently Gainsbourg enjoyed the misogynistic experience of working with von Trier on Antichrist so much she decided to return for more. Well, Melancholia isn’t nearly so cruel to women thankfully, but it is still tediously full of some of the most despicable human beings ever conceived for fiction. Even one character who seems the most reasonable in the second half ends up revealing his true nature by committing a final act of extraordinary cowardice.

This is all part and parcel of dealing with a Lars von Trier film. When you’re not being victimized through his characters’ physical or emotional suffering, you have to wade through the morass of people like Debbie (Charlotte Rampling), Justine’s mother who makes a scene at the wedding by pronouncing her distaste for marriages before disappearing to her room for a bath. Also attending the wedding is Justine’s boss played by Stellan Skarsgard, a “power hungry little man” as she describes him, who insists on pressing her for an advertising tagline even at her wedding celebration. John never tires of reminding people how much money he’s put into this lavish affair which takes place in their private castle sitting on an 18 hole golf course. John Hurt is the philandering father and Udo Kier is the unforgiving wedding coordinator who refuses to look at the bride after she “ruins” the wedding. At first it appears that Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), her new husband, are the only sane characters until you realize she is inconsolably sad and completely disconnected from events around her.

Von Trier is not without a macabre sense of humor, however, as he throws in small moments that elicit minor laughs borne of the sheer absurdity or in some cases humiliation of the situation. Kier’s refusal to look at the bride is comical as he theatrically holds his hand near the side of his face whenever in her presence. Debbie’s refusal to participate in the rituals of a wedding celebration beg the question of why she turned up even as we chuckle at how brash she can be toward her own daughter. One particularly amusing moment occurs at the end of the wedding when the wedding planner announces to Claire the result of a contest to guess the correct number of beans in a jar that is now long forgotten given the circumstances. “How incredibly insignificant,” she tells him. Indeed.

The film is divided into two parts. The first focuses on Justine and her mental state during the wedding. The second, and much more compelling, part is for Claire as she becomes the unstable one in the face of the approaching planet. John assures her that all will be well as Melancholia, the rather unsubtly named planet, will just pass right by (as if it ever does). As the planet gets closer, the two women begin to swap roles as depressive and consoler. Justine relaxes into a state of acceptance and is able to help Claire as she becomes filled with anxiety over the impending doom.

Von Trier retains many of the filmmaking techniques employed by the Dogme 95 Manifesto which he started along with Danish director Tomas Vinterberg. Much of the camera work is handheld, it is shot entirely on location (from what I can tell) and much of the lighting appears natural, helping what is ostensibly a kind of science fiction fantasy film retain a cinema vérité feel. However, the extensive special effects and extra-diegetic Wagner music break a number of Dogme 95’s rules.

Ultimately I found it extremely difficult to connect with any of the characters, not only because they’re generally horrible people, but also because we know what’s coming at them. When another planet that dwarfs the size of our own comes crashing in, it makes you feel very small. And if we are so small compared to the universe, what sense is there in being concerned with the problems of a pair of sisters for a few days out of their lives. How incredibly insignificant indeed.

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