Friday, December 23, 2011

Review: Melancholia

If you know me, and you're a fan of film, then you probably know that I'm an unabashed fan of Lars von Trier. I won't deny that it's a complicated appreciation that I sport for the man. In theory, there are a number of reasons for why I should hate his movies. However, while I have not seen all of his films, I have enjoyed the handful that I have seen. Hopefully, one day soon I'll write something that will have to be a treatise on why I think LvT is a good, and perhaps even important, filmmaker. For now, I'll limit my thoughts to Melancholia, his most recent film. Preview: I liked it.


With Melancholia, LvT is displaying both old and new tricks. On the one hand, it's very familiar territory for him. The focus main characters are female. And they are damaged goods, as it were. Lars infamously puts his lead actresses through the ringer. Granted, he churns out Cannes awards for Best Actress - but it's not necessarily a pleasant process. In this movie, LvT had both Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg to torment. Gainsbourg knew what she was getting into, having worked with Lars on the unsettling Antichrist. Dunst, however, was fresh meat. Both actresses, though, would have an intense time ahead of them.  

Melancholia is right in Lars' wheelhouse with regard to subject matter. He suffers from a notorious list of phobias and anxieties. One interesting thing about Lars is how he uses his films to work through his myriad of psychological issues. Or put another way, it's not necessarily the case that he uses his films as some form of therapy, but that his artform would seem to display the feelings which weigh most heavily on his psyche at any one point in time. I understood this film to be broken overtly into two general themes: depression and anxiety.

Part One focuses on Dunst's Justine (and depression). It takes place during the celebration of her wedding to Alexander Skarsgård, a dopey, simple, and well-intentioned man. Justine, however, clearly suffers from a very clinical case of depression. She has no appropriate means of dealing with her illness, so all she can do is try to hide it, which makes for a very awkward wedding reception. This phase of the movie contains a number of well known actors: John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlottle Rampling, Brady Corbett, and Udo Kier. It also features some of the Lars' most overt attempts at comedy in his films (see: Hurt and Kier).


The second half of the film focuses on Gainsbourg's Claire (and her anxiety), who is Justine's sister. Scientists have uncovered that the mysterious planet Melancholia will soon pass by Earth. Some believe it to be a benign event; others believe the event will mean the end of the world. Claire seeks solace from her husband, played by the scientifically-minded Sutherland. However, her gut instinct leads her to believe that the end of the world is near. She must balance her nearly paralyzing anxiety with the strength she needs to take care of her depressed sister Justine, who is living with her family.

Intense, emotionally wrecked female characters? Depression? Anxiety? Of course this is a LvT film! However, there are also some new touches. Melancholia is Lars' most cinematic movie. There are overhead swooping shots. There is CGI. There is some very measured cinematography (via  Manuel Alberto Claro). Perhaps rivaling only Dogville, there is a somewhat large and impressive cast. Considering that Lars was in one of the deeper depressions of his life around the making of this film, he managed to do some rather interesting stylistic maneuvers here.

Dunst is immensely impressive. She displays astounding chops. I didn't realize she had this talent. Depression is deceptively difficult to portray onscreen. It's not merely a sadness. It's much more. It's an emptiness, an inability to feel. It's an inability to properly connect with other people, who happen to feel things "normally." With both her words and body language, Dunst gives the audience an amazing look into the life of the depressed. Justine has tried her hardest to be happy, but she can't quite pull it off - even on her wedding day/night. And nobody can seem to understand why she just can't be happy. Neither can she.

Gainsbourg gives a powerful performance as well. Claire almost serves as the point-of-entry for the general audience, particularly in Part Two. We're led to question our own thoughts and fears at the prospect of the end of the world. Claire, perhaps appropriately, freaks out and succumbs to her fears. This performance is strong, but Dunst's performance has a slightly more intense resonance for me. It may just come down to a higher degree of difficulty.


LvT knows how to craft a helluva intense film. I utilize a special form of "suspension of disbelief" for his films, which I largely think need to be viewed as allegories. Melancholia ushers its audience through the mud for an accurate, if not also extreme look at depression and anxiety. And what better director to guide the journey, than LvT? That being said, at the end of the day, it's unclear if there is a point to the journey beyond the journey itself. I kind of doubt it. Is there an answer for the the psycho-spiritual maladies of Justine and Claire? If there is, Lars has not found it himself. At the end of the day, I very much appreciate Lars' voice. It leads me to consider POV's that I might not have before. He also (through his victim/actresses) leads me to feel things that may not struck me before. For those reasons alone, Melancholia is worth watching. However, be warned: Lars' films beckon a response. You can't just like/dislike his films. You need to explain to yourself why your opinion is the case. And that is perhaps the main reason I enjoy LvT.

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