Tuesday 20 December 2011

Review: Melancholia

Year: 2011
Director: Lars Von Trier
Screenplay: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland

Synopsis is here

From nowhere; this celestial boulder, Melancholia appears from behind the sun and hurtles towards earth. When it connects, all life will be extinguished. Kirsten Dunst's Justine doesn't care, in fact for the most part this seems to be an afterthought. Reason being, it's clearly obvious that she's been dealing with a crushing pressure all her life.

Lars Von Triers' Antichrist was; for me, an excruciating bore. A beautiful; yet hideously unfocused piece, which tried too hard with it's Grand Guignol bloodletting and academic pandering to be involving in anyway. I still stand by my claim that many horror directors get slightest by some of the same things Von Trier placed on the table, and yet because of all the talk about thesis and the gorgeous visuals of the piece, the Dane gets a pass. Many will disagree with me there, but I'm digressing.

Melancholia is at times just as visually arresting as Antichrist, but is a far more precise being. Von Trier is far more accurate here and one of the reasons seems to be that the subject matter is closer to his heart. The dark clouds of depression loom large over both Antichrist and Melancholia but the latter shows a director whose far more in the mood to tackle (and even embrace) his demons then letting them run amok. Self absorption and pomp are still abound from the "best director in the world" but this is far more focused, far more at peace.

If Malick's Tree of Life was about the joy of life and the power of memory, Melancholia is the opposite. Tree of Life had Sean Penn's Jack reflecting on the various ways love was bestowed on him as a child. Here we are given a character in a deep state of depression (a subtle display by Dunst) whose hollowness clearly stems from a strained family relationship. An emasculated father (John Hurt in what appears to be a cameo), a scathingly bitchy and domineering mother (Charlotte Rampling) and a distraught sister Claire (Gainsbourg) who tries to care about her sister but is far too wrapped up by her own life. It is Claire and her husband John (a grumpy Sutherland) that has paid for Justine's wedding. Why isn't she happy? Why does she need to make a scene?

Much like Archipelago, the pain is hidden amongst the undergrowth as the family try and pain through a wedding that slowly detonates due to Justine's lack of well being. Told in two parts (named after the sisters) This half of the film is at times darkly amusing and appears to hark back to Festen (1995) by Domge 95 companion Thomas Vinterberg. Although; while visually more appealing, save for one moment, it's not nearly as scathing.

The second chapter, in which Melancholia becomes a stronger presence and begins to trouble Claire, is the stronger half of the story. As Justine becomes more depressed and yet more complacent about the end of the world, Claire becomes more anxious and worried. Von Trier's (and cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro) visual eye excel here. We watch as Justine lies naked bathed in the glow of the alien planet while Claire frets in the shadows. Another telling visual involves John; a man whose constant denial for nearly everything that's going on be it the idea of Melancholia crashing into earth or his sister in law's illness, wrapping his arm around Claire as they watch the planet come closer. Much like Defoe's character in Antichrist, is controlling and ignorant and fully wishes to dictate the women round him. The simple gesture of the embrace as Justine stand alone speaks volumes when observing his character as a whole.

It is films like this is why I can admire Von Trier at times, even if I do not appreciate everything he does. Here, his use of music (a beautiful prelude from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde) and visual eye combine to make a lavish and dark insight to depression. While the sci-fi hook Melancholia may come across as gimmicky and trite to some, it does help accentuate the themes that Von Trier wishes to place across. I've never been as depressed as Justine within the film but there's an accuracy about it I find hard to deny. We emphasise with her emptiness at the wedding as everyone else only seems to care about the shiny glossy surface of everything. Even the end of the world means nothing to her. As the others realise this and lose their heads, her clam exterior states everything it needs to. She's stared into the abyss long before them and no one cared. Nothing is going to change now.