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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in her wedding dress just before the world ends in Melancholia.

3.5 Stars

Lars von Trier's Melancholia defies classification about as much as it does your expectations. What else is there to expect, really, from the director of Antichrist and from a very personal story of depression and the end of the world. I guess the easiest thing to call it would be the anti-Tree of Life. Where Terrence Malick offered an ultimately hopeful story about life, its origins, and its hardships, von Trier is more interested in examining the very primal feelings of helplessness and despair one would experience during Earth's and mankind's final moments. Of course, the visuals of such an event will take your breath away, and the performances from co-lead actresses Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are phenomenal. So despite a few narrative missteps, Melancholia ends up being an awe-inspiring film.

After a mystifying prologue, a beautiful cacophony of extremely slo-mo surrealism during which we see Earth's ultimate fate, we meet Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). The two women are sisters—the former a brand new bride prone to flightiness and sudden bouts of extreme depression, the latter an uptight realist trying to keep the peace between her family and her understandably impatient husband (Kiefer Sutherland). After a number of wedding-party disasters, the film jumps a few weeks ahead to a potentially bigger disaster. A planet called Melancholia is headed toward Earth, and though most scientists are confident it will pass by in a bright, stunning blaze of blue, there are those out there who believe the end has arrived. In a darkly ironic twist, it's now Claire who has fallen to pieces, concerned about her fate and that of her family, while Justine has decided to calmly meet whatever comes next.

What do you do when you know your about to die? When everyone is about to die? And perhaps more interestingly, what do you think about? What do you hope and pray for? These are some of von Trier's questions, and he answers them in as pessimistic a way as you'd expect from one of the world's most (gasp!) controversial directors. It's not a spoiler to say the world does end—it occurs in the first eight minutes, actually. But the story of these two very different women grasping (or trying to grasp) some form of acceptance is what makes Melancholia so interesting. Their conversations vacillate between grim and "fucking black hole" dark, and though it's not the most pleasant thing to watch, I was incapable of looking away.

Von Trier's direction is as assured as any I've seen this year. Those first eight minutes are visually spectacular and brilliantly contrast with the naturalistic way in which he films the wedding scenes. It's interesting that Mr. Dogme '95 himself has made something that involves such epic special effects, but he's sure to get plenty of mileage out of the handheld cameras and natural sound and lighting. The film's final chapter is a solid mix of the two techniques, with the finale just going bananas, but with such an out-there premise, I was most impressed with the fact that von Trier never really let the film get away from what he does. His stamp is all over Melancholia, despite being such an odd departure (at least on the surface).

Though I really was mesmerized by Melancholia, I had some problems with the story itself. One late moment in particular bothered me a lot (I'll just say it was the way one character exited the film), and there were times during the wedding that I felt von Trier was repeating himself. The film should have been tighter. He also ratchets the theatricality up a little too much, and at times, it feels like the wheels were coming off. I hate to be too critical on these points because I really think the final product works, but it's not a flawless effort.

Kirsten Dunst is as good as she's ever been. When we first see her on her wedding day she seems overjoyed, but that facade quickly dissolves when her mother (Charlotte Rampling, in a role that's tragically small) opens her uber-critical mouth. Clearly, Justine has been battling demons her whole life, and the pressure of this night combined with the emotional wounds ripped open by her mother just sends her over the edge. The woman we see in the film's second half has completely shut down. It's only impending doom that gets her to open up, and what we get from her isn't happy, it's just honest. She's a fascinating character, and there wasn't a second during which I felt Dunst was acting. She just nails it, completely inhabiting Justine from beginning to end.

She's matched on every level by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The only woman brave enough to go for seconds with von Trier, she has an even tougher task than her onscreen sister because she needs to balance the crazy that's in her blood with a dose of reality. What's left is a barrel of nerves that needs to come off as a three-dimensional individual, and in the hands of anyone less capable than Gainsbourg, I imagine there would have been fireworks on set.

The word melancholia musters up some very dark feelings and images, so it should come as no surprise that the film is full of these two things. Von Trier manages to integrate some subtle humor into the wedding party scenes, but don't expect much in the way of smiles and laughter. The people in this film are deeply flawed and very unpleasant, and they are our unwilling hosts as we watch the world end. With all that out of the way, I have to recommend Melancholia because I found it so incredibly compelling, but if you hate this film, don't kill the messenger. It's a tough watch for sure, but for some, you'll find it extremely rewarding.


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