Monday, November 28, 2011

Melancholia / ***½ (R)

Justine: Kirsten Dunst
Claire: Charlotte Gainsbourg
John: Kiefer Sutherland
Michael: Alexander Skarsgård
Tim: Brady Corbet
Leo: Cameron Spurr
Gaby: Charlotte Rampling
Little Father: Jesper Christensen
Dexter: John Hurt
Jack: Stellan Skarsgård
Wedding Planner: Udo Kier

Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. Running time: 136 min. Rated R (for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language).

Lars von Trier’s latest opus “Melancholia” is like a symphony imagined on screen, telling an intimate story that spans the cosmic into profound examination of humanity’s universal desires and fears. Wow, I’m not sure I could’ve made it sound less appealing. Like all of Von Trier’s work, it is a challenging movie. It’s a challenge that yields unique and exquisite reward, however.

“Melancholia” opens with a prologue of images that operates like a visual overture to the entire movie. The images we see give us impressionistic ideas of the story and themes we are about to see in the main body of the film. The images are striking, evoking some of the same feelings as Terrence Malik’s masterpiece from earlier this year, “The Tree of Life”. The images are not meant to be taken literally and play like something out of a music video. They are necessary to prepare you for the scope of the themes that will evolve out of a story that seems more intimate than the cosmic climax that ends it.

We meet a couple on their wedding day. They travel in the back of a white stretch limo. We never see the driver well. This is their day. The limo is stuck navigating a narrow lane, and eventually both the bride and groom try their hand at navigating the stones lining the drive. Eventually they walk to their destination. They don’t seem to take this development as the omen it may be.

The bride is Justine. Her sister Claire has made all the wedding arrangements and has spent two hours trying to keep the patience of each of the guests in line. The first part of this movie is named after Justine. It’s a sonata, where Justine sings her own song, shutting the other characters out. The second part is named after Claire. Claire’s movement is more of a fugue where other voices also contribute to her story and influence her direction.

Justine appears to suffer some form of mental illness. I would guess she is bipolar. Kirsten Dunst (“Spider-Man”) perfectly captures the untamable spirit of her needy character, going from sparkling happiness to lifeless depression at the drop of a dime. Justine spends her wedding night alternately reveling in a dream wedding at her brother-in-law’s majestic resort estate and spiraling down into a depression that will never allow her the happiness that everyone who surrounds her tries so hard to give her.

Claire, in contrast to her sister, is someone who tries to make others happy. It’s obvious after years of dealing with her sister’s unpredictability, she wishes things were different. Still she does all she can to care for her sister, while her husband, John, would rather give up on Justine. Claire’s half of the film takes place several days after the failed nuptials, after Justine has crash-landed back into her care at her husband’s golf resort. Charlotte Gainsbourg continues to impress me with her adaptability as an actress in the role of Claire. Here she seems naturally put upon by, not only her sister, but her husband and others. In her last film for Von Trier, “Anichrist”, her role was more like Justine. She seemed just as natural a choice for that one.

Throughout the sisters’ dilemma a cosmic event of unprecedented nature is occurring. A small planet named Melancholia, after its blue hue, is set to pass very close to Earth’s orbit. Claire feels fear, fueled by internet conspiracy theories, that the planet is actually on a collision course with Earth. John assures Claire that the scientific calculations are correct and it will pass them by. He’s quite excited about the event. Kiefer Sutherland is surprisingly effective in the role of John. He brings the only glimmers of humor to the proceedings with how put out he is by Justine and her histrionics.

Von Trier may take the events past the point he needs to for what is one of the most inevitable conclusions any movie could have. We know what’s going to happen, and I’m not sure why he insists on showing us. Perhaps he’s trying to say something about the ever-hopeful nature of man, but I don’t think he makes that clear. It just seems like the movie should’ve ended once the conclusion became obvious to the audience and characters. I also didn’t understand why Claire was so worried about the planet hitting the Earth. Certainly worry about such an event is natural, but after a certain point it becomes futile. If it does hit the Earth, that’s it and there’s nothing to be done about it. I’m not sure what she thinks she can do if her fears are realized.

Despite these minor detractors, Von Trier has made one of the most beautiful films of his career with “Melancholia”. The production is profound with stunning imagery. This isn’t the lo-fi Dogma ’95 style of filmmaking that Von Trier is often credited with creating. This is glorious stuff with the same depth of human observation that accompanies all of Von Trier’s work. It’s difficult territory here, but the rewards it yields are worth the effort.

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