Mark Reviews Movies

Melancholia (2011)

MELANCHOLIA (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lars von Trier

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Cameron Spurr, Alexander Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier

MPAA Rating: R (for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language)

Running Time: 2:16

Release Date: 11/11/11 (limited); 11/18/11 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 10, 2011

Melancholia begins and ends with the destruction of Earth. In between, the lives of two women are devastated, one by internal forces and the other by external—both out of their control—until, finally, everything else is destroyed. It's a hopeless film about a hopeless situation, yet it is also a film that has piercing insight into the human condition, especially in regards to the finality that we all share and the range of ways in which we respond to the terrible knowledge thereof.

Writer/director Lars von Trier is unrelenting in this vision of inner and outer ruin. He offers no escape for his characters—try as they might—and the only solace belongs to one character who not only fully anticipates the end of the world and all the ramifications that accompany it but also welcomes them with open arms. The opening sequence (set, like most of the film, to the prelude of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde—the grandly tragic swells of the piece perfectly suited to the material) is a montage of almost romantic, slow-motion tableaux (stunningly shot by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro) surveying the final moments of Earth (dead birds rain from the sky, a woman carries her child as her feet sink deeply into the ground, electricity surges upward from power-lines and another woman's hands, the same woman trudges through a field of vines in a literal representation of how she later says she feels). It might be that character's perspective of events, but it is most definitely a jarring juxtaposition to the realism von Trier shifts into once the mosaic ends.

It ends, of course, with a view from space of a giant, blue planet crashing into the Earth, which shatters and crumbles apart. The distant vista is majestic; the next time we see the planets collide, it is intimate and horrifying.

Like so many tragedies, knowing what inevitably will unfold from the start only adds to the sense of helplessness, and the dramatic irony allows a greater understanding of the characters' oftentimes obscure thoughts and the behavior that results. These are exceptionally realized characters, and, despite the absolute certainty of the scenario, von Trier still manages to leave some of the characters' actions enigmatic, most notably when it comes to Justine (Kirsten Dunst), one of the film's dual heroines. She changes from a woman unable to cope with the everyday world into a rational harbinger of doom, comforted by her knowledge (Von Trier suggests she has otherworldly powers at one point, which only serves to further weigh down upon the scenario). The other protagonist is her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who transforms from a cold taskmaster into a woman unable to cope with the thought of staring into the void. The contrast between the two sisters is utterly fascinating, though they exist in their own, individual terms, as well. The dynamic only accentuates the unique personalities of the two.

Further delineating the difference, von Trier's screenplay is divided into two parts; the film's structure is really of two, interconnected short stories. The first follows Justine on the day of her marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The newlyweds arrive at the chateau of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who is proud of his material possessions, particularly the 18-hole golf course on the grounds (The irony that his success means nothing in relation to the impending cataclysm is not lost). There, Justine and Claire's divorced mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and father Dexter (John Hurt) bicker over romance, and Justine's boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård) announces she has been promoted and sends a new employee of the advertising firm for which she works named Tim (Brady Corbet) to hound her for a tag line to a new campaign.

A key to the film is the dichotomy of chaos and order. Justine's story begins with a microcosm of disorder as she and Michael attempt to maneuver a stretch limousine on to a narrow road leading to the estate. On face value, it is the happiest Justine is throughout the film. The moment she arrives at the manor, Claire goes over the schedule for the reception, and at that instant, Justine's state of mind begins to decline. At one point, she changes the books on display in the library from ones that show geometric designs to others that signify death.

It is clear Justine suffers from depression (The fact that the word is never uttered by herself or anyone around her speaks volumes about how she has needed to confront it on her own without any support system), and as the party progresses, her mood deteriorates. "I smile, and I smile, and I smile," she pleads with Claire, who insists her sister somehow snap out of her condition. Justine does smile—a hollow grin as she poses for photographs. Dunst's performance—with her chilly, calculated vocal inflection and dead eyes—is hypnotizing.

Those around her attempt (and have attempted in the past, we garner from the dialogue) to do the best they know how to help her. Claire pushes a bottle of liquor in her face to chug. John throws money at the problem, paying for the elaborate and expensive wedding. Michael has bought her a new house, where he hopes the vineyards will give her peace. She holds the photo of the fields close to her but leaves it behind immediately after saying she will keep it with her.

The second half details the approach of a massive rogue planet dubbed "Melancholia" toward Earth (hinted at when Justine notices a star missing from the sky). The focus in this segment is on Claire, who fears the planet will hit. Gainsbourg, traversing the emotionally draining terrain of imminent mortality, is astounding. By all means, John, an amateur astronomer, would serve as the voice of reason—assuring everyone that the scientists have determined it will simply fly by—save for the fact that we know he is incorrect.

This section plays as a chamber drama. As Melancholia nears, Claire falls, as Justine recovers (At one point, she bathes in the nude in the eerie, blue glow of the planet). "The Earth is evil," Justine tells her sister; "No one will miss it." Von Trier is not afraid to have her contradict even that sweeping statement in her final act, distracting and hence consoling her nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr) by building a "magical" cave. John's exit from the film is also uncharacteristically selfish (not cowardly), but these details only add to the intricate layering of the characters.

This is a fearless film—a merciless and haunting view into a pit of despair. With Melancholia, von Trier pokes and prods at a primal nerve, and as discomforting as the material might be, the complex characterizations and single-minded focus are also exhilarating. When it ends, in a deafening cacophony of terrestrial roars and a crescendo of strings, it truly ends.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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