Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Unmerciful "Melancholia"

Apparently Lars von Trier is still depressed. In his latest film, "Melancholia," he literally destroys all life on Earth, by having a mysterious planet come out from behind the sun and smash us all into celestial bits in a fancifully morbid opening sequence. His main character is a picture-perfect bride named Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who self-destructs during her wedding reception, and later seems to gain strength and purpose in her knowledge that the world is facing an imminent demise. You know, after so many films featuring troubled heroines, I've decided Lars von Trier isn't a misogynist at all. He just likes projecting all his personal issues on his tormented heroines. Also, he's got something of a martyr complex.

But back to the subject of depression. After the fireworks of the pre-title sequence, we travel back in time a few months to the wedding reception of Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard), who arrive two hours late, and it just gets worse from there. Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to keep the evening on track despite Justine becoming increasingly distracted, and disappearing for long stretches of time. Their parents, Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), despise each other and make no attempt to hide it. Justine's boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgaard) is only present to try and bully some ad copy out of Justine, with the help of a tagalong trainee, Tim (Brady Corbet). Meanwhile Claire's overbearing husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) keeps vocally complaining about how he ended up footing much of the bill for the event. The wedding planner, played by Udo Kier, is so upset by the bride's delays, he insists on shielding his eyes to avoid looking at Justine entirely.

In short, we have the wedding from hell, a seething mire of toxic relationships and bitter grudges, dressed up all the tasteful finery of an expensive wedding party. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Justine, whose elaborate bridal gown and coiffed hair initially do a wonderful job of making her look joyous and radiant. Then Kirsten Dunst starts smiling just a little too hard, and her dialogue gets more terse, and then she's doing very socially awkward things in that bridal gown that literally made me pause, reorient, and confirm that she was actually doing what I thought she was doing, in a bridal gown. The social satire is cutting and merciless. The cast offers biting, cruel performances, with the exception of an exasperated Udo Kier, delivering comedic grace notes on the savagery. The entire affair is designed to be suffocating and awful, as experienced by Justine, who lashes out and makes the situation even more unbearable. It's not easy to sit through, but von Trier's intentions are clear and his observations are sharp. Every bit of false sentiment or meaningless ceremony is thoroughly mocked or maligned, and no one escapes unscathed.

So it is something of a relief when the second half of the film begins, a few days before the planet Melancholia is due to arrive. The claustrophobic handheld camerawork gives way to moody, scenic panoramas, and the POV shifts to Clair living on a large estate with John and their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Justine is visiting, so depressed by this point that she can barely be coaxed out of bed. Clair worries that Melancholia will collide with Earth, though John and Leo are excited for the event, which John insists will only be a "fly-by." The foreknowledge of impending doom, provided by the film's opening, makes the quieter, more muted interactions of this segment more poignant and impactful. Eventually the tables are turned, and it's Clair's appeals to civility and propriety that are out of place, while Justine's cold nihilism becomes more appropriate and empowering. And it's oddly wonderful that Lars von Trier has managed to construct a situation where being thoroughly, utterly depressed, is the most reasonable state of being.

I liked the second half of "Melancholia" much more than the first half. The imagery is macabre and gorgeous. Snow and hailstones fall from an ashen sky, and the surrounding natural scenery becomes starker and stranger as the end draws near. Von Trier has explored the beauty of negative imagery before, but it's never been so grand scale or ostentatious. And then there's the score, that features dramatic orchestral pieces that reach their climax just as Melancholia reaches Earth. With more breathing room, the performances also become fuller and more complex. No histrionics or graphic self-harm here, but only simpler, and far more potent moments of human contact. Dunst has rightly been receiving a lot attention for her performance, but Charlotte Gainsbourg is also a valuable anchoring presence.

I don't think "Melancholia" is among Lars von Trier's better films, but he's left off the worst of his excesses and made something very watchable and compelling. The mood and tone and style are unique for a cinema apocalypse, that struck me as oddly comforting. Yes, it may be the end of the world, but all things end and it's perfectly natural to feel sad and despondent. It's nice to know that though Lars von Trier may not be feeling any better, at least he's fully embraced being depressed.

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