Wednesday, 5 October 2011


2011. Dir: Lars von Trier. Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård and Stellan Skarsgård. ●●●●○

Man’s place within the Universe is a hot topic with auteurs this year, first Terence Malick persuades us that we are both insignificant yet fundamentally connected to the whole, that we are both a servant of and a centrepiece to the will of a creator. Now we have Lars von Trier rejecting the notion, instead reminding us of our helplessness against an impassive and intransigent galactic system. In Melancholia von Trier adds "The Universe is Evil" to his "Nature is Satan's Church" Antichrist quote to confirm his extreme nihilism and phobia of the natural world.

I'm being disingenuous though as the movie is not about the end of the world, as much as the plot is driven by the cataclysmic event, instead it's about how depression upends your world view such that ostensibly joyous events (like the Wedding reception that plays through the first half) can trigger deep periods of malaise whereas the forthcoming interplanetary apocalypse gives the depressive an opportunity to display vital stoicism. It's the cinematic evidence that a pessimist is never disappointed.

The film bravely opens with slow-motion dreamlike surrealist shots heavily underscored with Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde". Some of these images - such as Charlotte Gainsbourg sinking into the green of the 19th hole, clasping her son in her arms - will be repeated as the titular blue planet rushes to collide with Earth albeit in a less idealized way, others are pure fantasy, echoing the mental state of Kirsten Dunst's Justine, like the poster image of Dunst in her wedding dress helplessly drifting downstream in an image reminiscent of Millais's "Ophelia...", a romanticised portrait of suicide Justine will later open during an art appreciation based tantrum. A few of the shots slow the inexorable and inevitable collision, with the music finally being drowned out by the bass rumble of Earth being shattered.

We cut to Dunst and her recently betrothed, Alexander Skarsgård, in the back of an impossible stretch limo, giggling and obviously deeply in love as the driver fails to negotiate twisty drive leading to Keifer Sutherland's grotesquely opulent mansion and the Wedding reception held within. As the two lovers eventually give up and arrive on foot you rather wish they had just backed out and gone straight on Honeymoon. Instead they stumble into a vipers nest of guests, each nipping away at each other and at the bride, reducing her confidence and stability until she has no choice but to surrender to the negative impulses within.

Whether it's smary, Machiveliian boss Stellan Skarsgård, orchestrating a network of spies to close around Justine's every utterance, her drunken letch of a father (John Hurt), her bitterly divorced mother (Charlotte Rampling, struggling to cope with some dreadfully clunky dialogue) or even the loving sister Gainsbourg, who will forgive every negative impulse Justine has but not without griping at her for having them.

Skarsgård jr. does his best to keep Justine on side, by turns utilising patience, bribery and physical comedy, indeed it's hard to see why anyone could not fall in love with this gorgeous and sensitive suitor. But then it's not the depth of their feelings that are in question, instead it's the gnawing feeling of unworthiness that chews on Justine's mind, she makes decisions, acts of commission and omission that deliberately drive a wedge between the two of them. And later when he eventually gives up her simple comment "What did you expect" could be seen as both triumphant and reconciled.

The second half sees a shift in the story as we concentrate on hitherto sensible sister Claire (Gainsbourg), with only her pragmatic husband (Keifer) impressionable son and the virtually catatonic Justine she awaits the arrival of 'Melancholia', mourning the loss of her child's future and slowly fragmenting in panic. As the end gets closer we eventually see the roles of the two sisters completely reversed, I won't spoil the final shot (yes, the World ends but there's more to it than that) but it beautifully encapsulates their new found emotional states.

The scene composition throughout the movie is incredible, with von Trier proving he is at home with complex special effects as he is with a bare stage. Melancholia, with all it's physics and complexity, is stunningly visualised, as the family stay up to watch the planet rise over the horizon you too will marvel at it's passage and the twin shadows against the moon.

The script is a little too obvious at times, with a couple of scenes jumping out as downright clunky, especially the Wedding speeches (each character essentially states what they feel rather than revealing in in subtext) and there's a chat between Justine and Claire towards the end that seems terribly forced. But beyond that it's difficult to find criticism for this movie. Kiki is fantastic in the role of Justine, finally proving to the critics what a versatile and committed performer she is. The other element that stood out for me was the sound design and editing, which really draws the narrative. From the panicky whinnying of the horses to the whoosh of Melancholia in the sky and from full pelt Wagner to terrible silences you could close your eyes, remove the dialogue and still understand the tragedy of the central story.

Overall I would have to say this is one of the most fulfilling and baffling cinematic experiences of the year, and one I would recommend. But don't ever trust von Trier, he puts enough clues in the film to know when he's lying to us, as I have in this review.


TomS said...

The screening at the Chicago Film Festival is already sold out. I will have to wait until it is in general release. You seem to like von Trier's work in general.

Runs Like A Gay said...

That's a shame it's worth catching up with.

I confess I'm a Trierophile.