Sunday, March 17, 2013

Melancholia

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has inspired a lot of controversy, both in his work and about himself. I've never weighed in on it because I had yet to see any of his movies, but I was interested in seeing them. Having seen Melancholia (2011), his unflinching look at depression, family, and misery in the face of the apocalypse, I can safely say that whether you like the film or not, it will generate discussion about its ideas. It offers no easy answers and no comfort to its audience, but it is exceptionally well crafted, bravely acted, and haunting.

The film is divided into two parts. The first, titled "Justine," concerns itself with the wedding celebration of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and the reception being held at the estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who have paid for the wedding. Despite trying to put on a happy face, Justine is severely depressed to the point that both the ceremonies of the day and her relationships with the guests - her divorced parents, sour mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and carefree father Dexter (John Hurt), and boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) - are irreparably damaged. Part two, "Claire," jumps ahead to where Justine's misery has left her nearly catatonic. Claire tries to care for her, but she grows despondent as a planet called "Melancholia" hurtles toward earth, threatening the annihilation of all life.

For a movie about the end of the world, Melancholia doesn't concern itself with any grand scale or sense of mass destruction. There are no special effects of buildings crumbling, cars exploding, rioting, hellfire raining down, scientists explaining what's going on, or heroes rising to save the day. Melancholia the planet begins as a tiny dot in the sky that gradually grows larger and larger until its destiny arrives. The end approaches, and the movie limits its focus to a small group of people at one location as their personal dramas play out against the backdrop of oblivion. The film opens with a stunning sequence of abstract beauty depicting the inevitable end with a series of symbolic, almost-frozen shots of Justine, Claire, and Claire's young son Leo (Cameron Spurr), together and in separate frames, intercut with a depiction of the two planets colliding. Once the narrative begins, the film adopts a mostly handheld perspective that includes a lot of jarring jump cuts and is just as personal and unstable as the characters it captures.

Many films that depict depression do so in a superficial manner (i.e. eating ice cream while watching a romantic movie) that is easily solvable (i.e. finding that special someone by the end). Here, it's gut-wrenching and paralyzing. Pains are taken to illustrate everything Justine is grateful for, including a wealthy family and a loving, caring husband, but her misery is a merciless chasm, a draining and debilitating force that offers no respite and only grows in power, not unlike a certain galactic phenomena threatening the world.

There's not a bad performance in the film. I've never been a Kirsten Dunst fan, but this is probably her best work. Gainsbourg is also really good as the long-suffering sister who wants to help but can lose her patience ("Sometimes, I hate you."). I also like seeing Sutherland act, rather than play a variation of Jack Bauer; he's set up as the strong, reassuring voice of reason and science, but we eventually learn how much of a false front that is. In a nice touch, Udo Kier plays the insulted wedding planner who humorously refuses to look at Justine after she "ruined [his] wedding."

Melancholia is more than two hours long, and while it is absorbing and challenging, it is not entertaining. It's painful, awkward, and forceful and revels in harsh truths. It's not always subtle in tone or meaning, but then again, a slap to the face usually isn't.

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