When Worlds Collide … Depression Sinks In

Melancholia (November 11, 2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Lars von Trier (Magnolia Pictures)

Ladies and gentlemen, the end of the world – Lars von Trier style.  The Danish director caused quite a fuss at Cannes this year with his misunderstood Nazi comments, reflecting a man with a sense of dark humor that not everyone finds all that funny.  He is a truly fascinating figure, often suffering from various phobias, but never losing his reputation as a fairly kindhearted guy, even amongst the various, disturbing images he places onscreen.  I regret that he will never do another interview.

His latest vision involves the contrast of a marriage between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) with the incoming “end of the world as we know it.”  In other words, a planet named Melancholia has been hiding behind our Sun, and will soon crash into Earth, despite the claims of scientists that it will simply be a “flyby.”  This is not a spoiler, considering the film’s opening sequence, a poetic, slow-motion symphony of destruction, basically sets this up for us.  We are then taken to the wedding a couple days earlier.  It starts off well enough, but with such characters as Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard), and of course, the bride’s unruly parents, things are bound to go wrong.  The planet keeps coming closer, and Justine soon feels the weight of “melancholia” upon her soul.

Von Trier, strongly influenced by German romanticism, has crafted something of a dark, unforgettable, beautifully flawed masterpiece.  The apocalypse has never quite looked or felt like this in any film, and the result is hard to remove from your dreams.  The visual effects, while not packing the punch of one such Tree of Life, never cease to be haunting as we hear the surging notes of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  Meanwhile, Dunst gives a sensationally bizarre performance as Justine, a woman who slowly loses her mind and heart, but may be becoming closer in spirit to the universe itself.  Gainsbourg, as her more down-to-Earth sister, is also terrific.  She also had a major role in von Trier’s Antichrist, a film I have not yet seen, but can keenly imagine has stylistic similarities to what von Trier does in his psychological, sci-fi opus.  Dunst won the Best Actress Award at Cannes, and rightly so.  This is a performance that drives the film, and stays with you even when there is nothing left but ash.

The film, broken into two parts, basically presents a reversal of emotion.  Justine, upon influence from her marriage-hating mother (Charlotte Rampling), and failure to connect with her loving, near-polygamist dad (John Hurt), begins to fear death like a disease; so strongly that she becomes nearly a messenger for death itself.  Justine may not be able to avoid the collision of the planets, but she may be able to avoid the collision with the man she once thought she loved.  After all, that was simply an Earthly matter.  Justine becomes nearly catatonic, and soon requires the care of Claire and Jack Bauer.  In the film’s second act, however, Claire becomes so paranoid about saving her little boy from any possible danger that she, amongst all others, requires the help of Justine.  The bride, so enamored in despair, is able to cope with the end of time, and help others cope.  She understands there is no divorce from death.

Melancholia is clearly rich and fulfilling, but at two hours and ten minutes, is slightly overlong.  Many scenes, particularly those at the wedding, could have easily been trimmed with little narrative impact.  However, the film is meant to be long and dreamlike, and for that, I respect its initiative.  Von Trier also uses many of his trademark techniques to help provide the film its unique tone, although I do wonder if he employs some attributes only for the sake of maintaining his reputation as a class-A weirdo.  The unnecessarily jerky camerawork, for instance.  Is this a generic attempt at realism, or a satiric element of independent American cinema?  The frequent nudity.  Breasts for the sake of breasts, or a clear, reflective influence of artistic romanticism?  It’s bittersweet to never know.  From now on, our favorite Dane will keep his mouth shut.  It’s easy to feel sorry for Lars von Trier, whose words and films are often misconstrued.  But it’s even easier to feel sorry for us.  If one person were able to warn us of a soon-approaching apocalypse, I’d take one guess as to who it could be.

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