Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Film Review: "Melancholia" (***1/2)

How can you possibly not feel bad for poor Lars? The man's been beaten down like a hideous dog for his brutal and uncompromising honesty, now to the point where he's had enough. It's such a tragedy in and of itself that his least controversial and most recently acclaimed film, "Melancholia", come when media disillusionment has kicked him out of Cannes, and now off the visible stage. Lars von Trier has taken himself out of the publicity game, doing no more interviews from here on out, and it's a damn shame. Yet despite the unfortunate recent events, the film does take on something of a stronger form. In it, Lars takes out his vengeance on the entire planet.

The film is broken up into three segments, starting off with a near-hallucinatory prologue introducing the main characters of Justine and Claire as Lars the Destroyer conjures up a series of bleak and extravagant imagery, with Wagner bellowing triumphantly in the background. The film could end after that 8 minute opening and still receive glorious accolades, but it serves as a reminder of where we're headed, and how inevitable it is. Cue Lars' trademark scribbled title card, and we're off to the races, at which point Lars puts a hold on his wilder visual stylings, as he's got a delicate story to tell.

The film's two halves are titled after the two main characters, Justin and Claire, and while they could just be seen to follow the two, they could also be seen as the destruction of each. The first half follows Justine at the reception of her wedding to the eager and young voiced Michael. As expected, things go wrong very quickly, with Justine desperately going to find her own happiness, and the rest of the party, her rather grounded sister Claire, Claire's obnoxiously rich husband John, Justine's manipulative employer, and her divorced and wildly dysfunctional parents, continuously burying her hopes.

That's not to make Justine sound like too much of a victim, as there's just a general lack of attachment to any of the characters at play here, even her husband. It's somebody who expected one day of joy, and slowly realized that the world simply doesn't stop for her, and keeps asking more of her. It ranges from the tragic to the darkly comedic, with the wedding planner refusing to look at Justine for "ruining his wedding". It ends with Justine so entirely removed from her surroundings, isolated in misery and purposeless single-mindedness.

The second half of the film follows Claire, with Melancholia hovering overhead, and everyone but Claire is fine. John is giddy at the planet-gazing opportunity. Their son Leo... he's pretty unfazed. And Justine has degenerated into a cynical and judgmental individual living under the care of her sister's family. While it takes place across a longer period of time, things still move at about the same pace as before. Where the looming sense of the wedding going awry loomed over the first half, the looming sense of imminent destruction looms over the second, and Claire is surprisingly unreasonable in how distraught she is.

There is a definite role reversal in play between Claire and Justine, with Claire confident and calculated towards the beginning while Justine is an emotional mess. Then towards the end, Claire is going crazy with panic as Melancholia comes in for the smack-down on earth, and Justine calmly sighing off the situation as an almost trivial problem. Kirsten Dunst is much more the leading lady of the film, even as she takes less focus in the second half. Her arc is that of finding confidence in her own self, with her jaded viewpoint situated against all of humanity, not to mention a generally romantic interest in the planet itself. I really didn't think I'd ever find Dunst in the same sentence as subtlety and fascination, but here she is.

That's not to say the rest of the cast is anything to slight. Charlotte Gainsborough manages a strong second outing with Lars after her brilliant performance in "Antichrist". Her role this time is much less purposeful and much more of an emotional wreck, but she does it with a strong lack of nobility that fits the character like a glove. Keifer Sutherland is all so inconsequential, but he's agreeable if nothing else. I fell in love with John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling's feuding and oppositional parents from the first second. Both of them is simply explosive in entrance and impact, neither overstaying their welcome, but each making their point.

And as odd as it may sound, "Melancholia" is this impossible love triangle between two sisters and a planet. From the lovely opening sequence, it's this at first romantic sort of story, and then the film goes under a urine colored code in the first half, before going all pale and drained towards the end. It's a contrast between romance and reality. It's about the isolation of these characters in a world where their strongest emotional connection is with a planet doomed to kill them all. Lars has crafted something both intimate and grand in scale, in the same vein as his previous wild success in "Dancer in the Dark". With the lavish to harrowing visuals melded seamlessly with a joyously repetitive chime of "Tristan und Isolde" as the film's main tune, Lars has enacted his vengeance on his terrorizes in the most productive way he could.

1 comment:

  1. Overall a good review.
    Way better than the film itself.

    I have always wondered is that a good instruction that has to be explained...
    The more I read about this film, the better I think it was.