Review: Melancholia

Sometimes it is imperative to separate a work of art from the artist. So it goes with Lars von Trier, whose controversial remarks at the Cannes Film Festival this year caused him to be banished from the remainder of the proceedings. Sure, von Trier is not exactly the ideal person to hang around with, but his films tend to shed a light on the inner workings of his mind. With Melancholia, the film clearly looks at depression in many of its complex forms, and sets this thematic focus in the context of a plot ultimately centered on the destruction of the Earth. Quite clearly, this is not popcorn fare, but something that aspires to be a work of art, and at times it certainly is, for von Trier’s own history of depression unquestionably influenced the film.

The film begins with a montage chronicling the end of the Earth as it is slammed into by a rogue planet, Melancholia. These few cosmic shots are intercut with the fates of the primary characters of our film: sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). This opening is about as lyrical as cinema gets, as the two planets perform a dance of death around each other, and the two sister move in extraordinarily slow motion (as assisted by an insanely high frame rate). Added to all of this is Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” a piece which simultaneously evokes beauty and tragedy, which is precisely what the images of this montage reflect.

Following this gorgeous opening, the film takes a drastic turn, shifting its focus to the sisters on the evening of Justine’s wedding reception at a particularly lavish palace overlooking an eighteen hole golf course. Though the proceedings are initially jovial, many of the guests simply wear their smiles as disguises. Tensions simmer underneath much of the cordial dialogue, and though all are happy for Justine’s marriage, that does not keep them from applying their narcissistic selves to her occasion. Her employer, the groom’s father and played by the predictably excellent Stellan Skarsgard, can’t help but talk about her work ethic. Even her divorced parents cannot help but turn the evening sour. The mother, played with an acid tongue by Charlotte Rampling, dourly says “Enjoy it while it lasts,” while the father, a wonderful John Hurt, can’t ever seem to find the right words to tell his daughter. Of course, at the center of the festivities is Justine, but as the night grow longer, she begins to unravel. Behind the formalities and lovely gazes at her newly-wed, Justine suffers inexplicably, and Dunst does tremendous work in conveying this without turning to melodrama. Trying to hold everything together are Claire and her astronomer husband, Kiefer Sutherland. Though they do their best to keep Justine under control, by the end of the night it is clear that something has irreversibly changed Claire. Some the scenes in this first half are actually quite funny, even if much of the laughter is uneasy. Characterized by a consistently handheld camera which moves freely throughout the party and discontinuous editing, this first half conveys not only a feeling of Justine’s fractured psyche but also the sensation of being at the reception as a guest, where one can feel every nuance of every gesture.

The second half of the film adjusts its attention to Claire, for it is clear that a good deal of time has passed since the reception and Justine has slipped from depression into complete and utter apathy. She has become completely helpless, yet could care less about it. The reason for this is due to Melancholia, the planet headed for a collision course with Earth. Though her husband tries to console her, it is now Claire who slips into a state of depression, this one characterized by much more manic behavior. Here Gainsbourg easily matches Dunst’s performance, becoming the person in need of an anchor when all things seem to have gone to hell. In something of a straightforward scene, Justine tells Claire that the Earth is evil, or rather that mankind is evil, and so she welcomes her fate openly. Though it gives something of a diagnosis for Justine’s behavior, the scene remains a bit too blunt considering the subtleties and subtext of the rest of the script. Despite the fact these are Justine’s feelings, I’m not sure they reflect the opinions of the filmmaker. Granted, Lars von Trier has always made a point to show the suffering of humanity, be it physically or psychologically, perhaps for its sins. However, when one begins a film with as beautiful an opening as this one, it seems that the Earth’s destruction by Melancholia implies that the state of depression has the ability to figuratively destroy the individual. Therefore, the Earth’s destruction is the destruction of a living soul, for as Justine herself says, “We are alone,” implying that nowhere else in the universe does life exist, and that is truly a sad thing.

In many ways, Melancholia is as close to a Bergman film as we’ll get following the master’s death. Though it may sound like a slight against von Trier, it is actually the highest compliment I can pay him. Melancholia, especially the second half, functions in the same way as Bergman structured his great chamber dramas, such as Persona and Through a Glass Darkly. Inner tensions between characters are the focal points of the films, as are the greater questions about identity and the presence of the force greater than ourselves. Few films dare to go into this type of territory, and although Melancholia isn’t perfect, there are many times where it approaches perfection.

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~ by romancinema on November 18, 2011.

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