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Friday, December 2, 2011

Film Review | Melancholia

When Worlds Collide

by Thomas Delapa

Nothing if not provocative since his 1991 breakthrough with the neo-Expressionist Zentropa, Danish director Lars von Trier has stepped from the portrayal of carnal devotion (Breaking the Waves) to postmodern musical (Dancer in the Dark) and Brechtian Western (Dogville). He also was one of the founders of the influential “Dogme 95” group, which advocated an austere, anti-Hollywood filmmaking aesthetic. More infamously, while appearing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he claimed to be a Nazi and “understood Hitler.”

Controversial gaffes aside (he’s since retracted those comments), his Melancholia may be the most depressing film of the year—excepting perhaps x-rays at a cancer clinic. Part psychodrama, part sci-fi, this intriguing but portentous end-of-the-world fantasy had me checking my watch, not the Mayan calendar.

You’re in for the time of your life if you fancy a close encounter with nebulous story lines and trippy imagery. Melancholia is really two movies, schizophrenically orbiting around a gothically apocalyptic plot. Following a surreal (and too-revealing) prologue, we’re invited to the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her adoring groom (Alexander Skarsgard), held at the posh country estate of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her prickly husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Looming literally and figuratively at a distance is the planet “Melancholia,” once hidden behind the sun and now headed dangerously close to Earth.

Von Trier’s rogue planet might be the biggest metaphor in the universe, seeing how it shadows Justine’s unstable emotional state, which rises and falls as the party drags on. While we’re not told what’s wrong with her (other than she works at an ad agency), we do see her capriciously desert her husband and run off for a quickie tryst on the lawn with a stranger. As a flighty female neurotic, Justine is only a few feathers away from Natalie Portman in last year’s Black Swan.

Everyone at the party, including Justine’s bitchy, cynical mother (Charlotte Rampling), seems on edge, waiting for when the bride will crash and burn. “No scenes” warns her sister Claire; but the party doesn’t end well, much to the disgust of John, who had to foot the bill.

With scant coherence between or within the film’s two parts, von Trier jumps ahead to Claire’s story, which takes place vaguely later at the estate. As Melancholia nears, it’s no honeymoon for Justine or anyone else. Smugly buoyed by scientific predictions, John assures the family that the planet will easily pass by Earth. Justine, near catatonic and on her own dark side of the moon, is saturnine.

As Melancholia approaches, accompanied by an eerie low rumble and Wagnerian music, the film ascends to an otherworldly beauty, like a scene from a Ray Bradbury story. One night, the family ventures out to watch the uncanny and stunning sight of twin moons lighting up the sky. As Claire grows anxious and panicky, Justine becomes curiously calm, if not content. The world is evil, she says, so good riddance.

Though Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, you can just as easily credit (or fault) von Trier’s shaky, invasive camera, which gets in her face for every toothy smile and nervous frown, yet reveals much less about her character than meets the eye. Whatever one thinks of Dunst and her radiantly opaque performance, even she is eclipsed by von Trier’s astronomically glum ending, which might only please lunatic doomsayers—and maybe ancient Mayans.


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