Monday, November 14, 2011

Movie Review: Melancholia

Melancholia ****
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier.
Starring: Kirsten Dunst (Justine), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), Kiefer Sutherland (John), John Hurt (Dexter), Stellan Skarsgaard (Jack), Alexander Skarsgard (Michael), Charlotte Rampling (Gaby), Brady Corbet (Tim), Udo Kier (Wedding Planner), Cameron Spurr (Leo).

Lars von Trier has been very open with the fact that he has been depressed for much of his adult life. He has even gone as far as to say he prefers depression to what came before – anxiety – because when he was anxious all the time, it was like being on adrenaline, but while you’re depressed, you’ve essentially given up and can at least relax. His new film, Melancholia, seems to split these two disorders – depression and anxiety – into two sisters, who in the films two halves deal with two different crises. The first half, entitled Justine, is about the title character’s wedding, although she is too depressed to enjoy it, and will eventually snap. The second half, entitled Claire, is about that title characters anxiety over the impending doom of planet earth, that may or may not be hit by the passing planet Melancholia. It’s quite clear where Trier’s sympathies lie though – with Justine, the depressed sister, as even in what is supposed to be Claire’s segment, Justine has the biggest impact on the audience. She’s more prepared for the end of the world than anybody – because she quite simply, doesn’t give a shit.

The movie opens with a striking series of images, some still, some in slow motion, that function as the movie’s prologue – much like the juxtaposition of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg having sex with their baby falling to her death worked as the prologue to Trier’s previous film, Antichrist. These images mainly focus on Kirsten Dunst’s Justine in a series of images that let us know something is not right in the world – images of birds falling from the sky all around her, fire and brimstone. You know the world is ending long before anyone in the movie actually openly says anything about it.

The first half of the movie is about Justine’s wedding day – specifically the party that follows the wedding. She and her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard) show up to the party two hours late, and although he talks in clich├ęs like “I’m the luckiest man in the world” and “This is the happiest day of our lives”, it’s quite clear that for Justine, the wedding party is little more than a chore. She keeps disappearing from the party for unexplained absences – madly rearranging art books in the library, to lie down and not come back. The pressure put on her is too much for her to bare – from her boss pestering her about a tag line for an upcoming project (they work in advertising), to her mother’s (Charlotte Rampling) cruel speech denouncing love and marriage, to her father’s (John Hurt) doddering and careless thoughtlessness. And mostly because of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) anxiousness and Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) talking about how much everything cost him, Justine finally snaps. In two short scenes, she alienates her boss and her husband, who has finally had enough and simply leaves her.

This segment has had some critics comparing Melancholia to Tomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Vinterberg is after all a Trier acolyte), and while there are some similarities (they are both about dark secrets coming out at what should be a happy celebration). Both films fit easily into the “dysfunctional family” subgenre of films. But I think they differ as well. While the other characters in Melancholia are sketched in broader strokes, Dunst’s Justine is perhaps the most realized character in any Trier film. This is a portrait of depression that doesn’t elicit our sympathy, but shows depression for what it really is – massive self involvement. It’s certainly possible to watch Melancholia, and see Justine’s family and friends around her, and realize how and why she is so depressed, and yet still think that she is just as bad as anyone at the wedding. To Dunst’s credit, she doesn’t shy away from her characters depression, herself involvement, or her rage when she finally snaps, but clearly embraces it. This is a daring portrait of depression – one of the best I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

The second half of the movie is not quite as strong as the first. Set on the rich, isolated estate owned by John and Claire, it involves them, along with their son Leo and Justine in the days leading up to when Melancholia either will or will not crash into earth, destroying everyone. John is a rationalist, saying that the scientists agree it will pass on by, and it’s clear that Trier holds him in contempt – both for his rationality and his capitalist greed. Claire is supposedly the star of this segment of the film, and much of it is spent with her as she worries about the impending doom. Justine spends much of the first part of this segment nearly catatonic – her depression has worsened to the point where she can no longer function on her own. But as it becomes clearer that the end of the world really is nigh, Justine really does take center stage again. While Claire worries, and rages against the dying of the light as it were, Justine is more than capable of embracing it. Who else but the suicidally depressed are truly ready for the end of the world? This part isn’t as strong, because I don’t think Trier truly gets inside of Claire’s head – he sees her worry as slightly pathetic, and embraces Justine’s cynicism instead. Gainsbourg, a great actress, salvages Claire with her performances, but it’s quite clear that Dunst and her Justine are still the star. When the end comes, in a bang, it’s one of the best climaxes in recent memory.

Personally I think Lars von Trier is at the most interesting phase of his career right now. After his first films, that were heavy on style, and less so on substance (The Element of Crime, Europa), he rejected that and went with his Dogme 95 style of filmmaking, seen in various incarnations in Breaking the Weaves, The Idiots (his worst film) and Dancer in the Dark (which contrasted that Dogme realism with Hollywood style musical numbers). Rejecting that aesthetic as well, he went minimalist with nothing more than chalk outlines on a black soundstage in Dogville (still my favorite of his films) and it’s less successful, but still underrated sequel Manderlay. Along the way, he made a few experiments in what it means to direct (The Five Obstructions and The Boss of It All) that were mainly interesting failures. But now with Antichrist and Melancholia, I think he has captured the whole package. Both films are expertly crafted, with style to spare, but all that style matches the dark subject matter. The critics who think Trier is a misogynist aren’t paying attention, as Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in Antichrist and Kirsten Dunst’s character here, are clearly the most fully realized, daring characters that Trier has ever created. It’s a shame that Lars won’t shut up at times, because when he opens his mouth, he mainly does a disservice to his films. And that’s too bad because Melancholia, like Antichrist, is one of his best.

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