Melancholia (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Melancholia (2011)

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Any attempt at analyzing Melancholia would, I fear, be playing right into Lars von Trier's devilish hands.  Yes, he loads his film with his current trend of direct psychological symbolism and drags Kirsten Dunst's own issues with depression directly into the spotlight.  But he telegraphs his intent to thwart scrutiny right off the bat, utilizing a full set of high-definition photographic trickery to metaphorically portray the events to come in reverse order, ending as it must, with the end of all we know.

"Pretty, isn't it?" he's whispering off to the side, "And so psychologically dense, in light of events to come, but let me show you something else."  Then we spend two hours with the clinically depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who, in a lovely trick by von Trier, is experiencing the one day where anyone else on this planet might be happiest which, to her, will be a living hell - her wedding.  Finally we arrive at the image von Trier has been waiting to show us since the beginning, a flimsy set of sticks positioned against the oncoming planet, a "Magic Cave" for Justine and her nephew that she promises will keep them safe against the crashing planet.

Stories are all we have to fight death with.  Artists paint their pretty pictures, bring psychological metaphors to the forefront, tell vibrant stories of strength under adversity and in a final analysis, it means nothing next to the looming oblivion we all so cheerfully accept is waiting for us.  The only tool we have is pathetic and it will never be enough in the final hours.

Only the clinically depressed can face certain apocalypse with contentment, something only von Trier can utilize with certain potency.

This is the cheery world of Lars von Trier, the most ambitious director working today.  A fan of trilogies, Melancholia is part of what is currently an unacknowledged, but most likely intended, "genre trilogy" for the Danish master.  It started with his take on the horror film, Antichrist, continues along with Melancholia, psychological disaster film, and appears to be wrapping up with his next film The Nymphomaniac, a sex drama.  This being a von Trier trilogy, he has promised with his next film the actress leading it will be "younger and younger, and nuder and nuder."

Von Trier is nothing if a provocateur and casual misogynist (brilliantly wrestled with in Antichrist), but here manages to scale it down.  Justine spends the first hour in a slow burn of psychological breakdown, but is the only one who can remain calm in the face of certain apocalypse by the end.  Once again, leave it to the world's most depressed director to caress his own ego by making clinical depression a strength, rather than a weakness, in the plot.

But the first hour, where we wander through the wedding, exemplifies just how versatile a director von Trier is.  He uses the same kind of HD camerawork he did in Antichrist to put us in the thick of a families longtime issues, avoiding the "shaky" issues of the handheld camera and instead leaving us with little room to escape.  If we aren't confronted with Justine's depression we have her brother-in-law's (Kiefer Sutherland) wrath, or her recent husband's (Alexander Skarsgard) supposedly innocent lust, or her mother's (Charlotte Rampling) vicious pride.  But in the midst of all these sins inflicted on Justine, who really just wants to find a quiet place to lay down until she can die, he still finds room for humor.  See Udo Kier, longtime von Trier cast member, as a wedding planner who places his hand over his face to prevent looking at the bride who ruined his carefully planned wedding.

A wedding which only one person in this photo knows the realistic outcome of. Poor bastard.

I've yet to see a von Trier movie acted by anyone at anything less than the top of their craft and Melancholia is no exception.  Dunst is absolutely superb, portraying a complex and crippling depression through many masks forced upon her by a well meaning but destructive family.  She's one of the most under-appreciated actresses in Hollywood, bringing her very real struggle with depression in the most appropriate film to do so.  I also commend Kiefer Sutherland, finally free from television, who reminds us just how commanding and subtly vicious a performer he can be.

Excellent cast aside, it's still von Trier's show, and his presentation and writing leave the greatest impact.  His greatest decision is to play the second hour just as straight as the first.  We leave the sickly yellow's and greens of the forced cheeriness of the wedding into the starkly contrasting blue of the planet Melancholia and the newly red Moon, reflecting the approaching planet's light.  Still von Trier does not vary his approach, sticking with the same handheld camerawork and using very little special effects to show, as realistically as possible, what awaits all of the characters.

Then we arrive at the stick fortress, last bastion of hope against reality, and von Trier's point comes full circle.  He had to open with all the special effects to highlight how the ritual of marriage is just as pointless as telling these stories.  We may "Oooh" and "Aaah" at the not impossible to decipher image of a wedding dress clad Dunst being weighed down by vines, but it doesn't change the fact that she and everyone else are going to die.

Does this inspiration mean anything? Color scheme aside, only the ones who give in to their depression are lucky.

These are the thoughts which, I imagine, give von Trier a little chuckle at night.  Sick bastard though he may be, I can't imagine any other film leaving we with as much to think about as Melancholia, or leaving me eyeing our moon a tad bit more suspiciously when it comes out tonight.

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Melancholia (2011)

Directed and written by Lars von Trier.
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Dunst was very good in this role but her character was just a little mopey for my liking. However, von Trier keeps his artistic vision in-tact and although there are moments of boredom, it still all comes together so well in the last 40 minutes. Great review Andrew.

  2. Just when i thought i have seen all movies of my fave actress Kirsten Dunst .. i stumbled into your blog. Now i need to see this. Thank YOU!

  3. Great point of view and a very well written review about the movie. I fell in love with the movie and just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Von Trier’s materpiece and the closest to who he is as a director in my opinion. Thank you, I will definitely keep reading your reviews.

    • Thank you very much for the comment! Von Trier films are consistently challenging even if they don’t always have the best results (Dogville and Manderlay have their defenders, just not here).

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