TIFF 2011: MELANCHOLIA Review

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer

A lot of people I know want to kick Lars von Trier in the balls if they were ever given a chance to do so. They think he is the biggest a**hole on the planet. That he is an arrogant, nihilistic artist constantly laughing at our expenses. His recent Hitler love at the Cannes didn't win him any favors either. Everything about him feels like a put-on, including his enfant terrible persona.


Personally I find his films to be quite simple, that there are no real depth or originality in them. Case in point, my favorites of his remain, to this day, to be Elements of Crime and Europa, both technical marvels from the cinematic filmmaking point of view. Over the years, he became one of the few filmmakers whose outside the movie set antics and their films are so entwined, I have a hard time separating them when reviewing. After watching two of his most recent, most 'personal' films to date and hearing about his crippling depression, I began to realize that he is indeed a hateful person and he's not faking any of it.


Accompanied by Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Melancholia begins with an overture, which tells the audience what to expect. Shot in the same glossy way on the super speed camera as the beginning of Antichrist, visually it's both fantastic and frightening- as the planet Melancholia is fast approaching the earth, birds are dropping like rain, a horse falls to the ground under the darkening sky, all the earth dwelling insects take to the air and Kirsten Dunst in her white wedding dress, floats in the stream. von Trier continues with his exploration of his fears in Melancholia, another deeply personal film. This time, the anxiety comes from facing the end of the world.

 

The film is in two parts: simply titled Justine and Claire - the two sisters who have very different outlook on life. The film starts with the wedding reception of Justine (Dunst) in a gigantic castle by the lake. The bride and groom are late for their own wedding reception. At first, they appear to be a sweet young couple but soon afterward, we realize that Justine is feigning her smiles and happiness. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her super rich husband John(Kiefer Sutherland), who arranged the wedding are getting visibly impatient with the non-cooperating bride. By the end of a long grueling reception, the unsuspecting, lovelorn-puppy groom (Alexander Skarsgård) isn't the only casualty of a heartbreak. And there is a planet small enough not to be threatening (yet), but visible to the naked eye in the sky.


The second part of the movie starts with the aftermath of the wedding. Justine, having failed at the attempt of getting out of her melancholic state by a marriage, is back to square one. She is an unresponsive, catatonic mess. It's Claire who takes an active mom role, taking care of her little sister. In the mean time, planet Melancholia from Scorpius Constellation is approaching closer to the earth by day. John, who knows about these matters tells concerned Claire that everything would be okay. That according to the calculations by all the leading scientists point to Melancholia squeaking by us and it would be a spectacular celestial show. Claire is not convinced. They have a young son and she wants him to have a future. Ironically, as the fateful day approaches, it's Justine who's calmer and more together than 'normal' Claire.


von Trier takes the visual cues mainly from the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romanticism painter who's known for his 'gaze' paintings where you as a viewer complete the painting by observing a figure gazing into the landscape in front of him. The old Flemish painting of winter landscape and John Everett Millais's famous Ophelia are also recurring images. There is a scene in the castle library, where Justine frantically replaces all the open art books containing abstract paintings with the images of the aforementioned paintings and other classics, a futile attempt to place an order in her chaotic mind landscape. 


I can see why so many great actors always flock to von Trier projects despite all the bad things he says about actors. These are hammy parts where you can exercise your craft. Dunst basically channels the melancholic director's outlook. Justine has hit the rock bottom. Her last attempt at happiness and normal life miserably failed. She's got nothing to lose. Therefore, impending doom of all humanity doesn't scare her. Gainsbourg is also great as maternal Claire, who loses her grip as the end  approaches. Justine calmly informs Claire, "Don't you think I'm afraid of that stupid planet." Superb supporting cast includes Sutherland, Skarsgård, John Hurt as the jolly father of the sisters, Charlotte Rampling as the cynical mom whose world wary presence explains Justine's origin and Stellan Skarsgård as smarmy boss of the advertising firm Justine works for.


I'm not saying von Trier's dickishness is any way excusable on account of his deep depression. But I think I understand him better after seeing his latest movie. It's stark, nightmarish and without hope. As Justine says with conviction, "We are all alone in the universe. I know this." Therefore, there is no need for the empty human rituals like niceties and being polite. When it's all said and done, I have to admit, Melancholia is still an amazingly gripping movie going experience. Whether I like his films or not, I still find myself being a salivating lapdog every time he comes out with a new film. It might be the a**hole/sad clown side of me connecting with him.


*According to the interview came with the press kit, his new project is called Nymphomaniac and there's going to be a lot of self mutilating involved.

Melancholia plays as part of TIFF & NYFF 2011 in September and October and will be released in the U.S. on VOD on October 7th and rollout into theaters on November 11th. Distribution is handled by Magnolia Pictures.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions can be found at www.dustinchang.com


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