Sunday, December 11, 2011

Embrace the Destruction of "Melancholia" - Review

It wasn't too long ago that I first stumbled upon the infamous internet site The Death Clock - When Am I Going To Die?.  If you haven't visited this site, I'm not sure that I would actively recommend you making the trip.  The only thing the site serves to remind you of is just how little time we all have on the planet (for me it is 1.5 billion more seconds).

What is most curious about the site is how much one's outlook on life determines the length of one's life.  The simple switch from pessimistic to optimistic could mean the addition of decades onto one's life.  It can be hard to face a ticking clock of one's own existence, especially with the uncontrollable reality of both human and non-human threats that the entire globe has to face.

Even Martin Rees, Britain's royal astronomer warns in his 2003 book, Our Final Century?, that the human civilization has less than a 50% chance of surviving beyond the 21st century now that our technology has become so powerful.  Things like nuclear weapons, biological terrorism, and the possible misuse of molecular nanotechnology pose some interesting threats to the continuation of humanity, as we know it.

However, the biggest uncontrollable existential threat is a cosmic one.  It isn't a question of if, but when, a foreign object might collide with the Earth.  In the face of such certain disaster, it is highly unlikely that we would be able to respond in any way.

Many films have addressed the notion of humanity's reaction to facing oblivion, mostly in an imponderous way (Armageddon, 2012).  Eccentric, art-house director Lars von Trier has approached the notions of both literal and existential oblivion in an emotional, depressing, and oftentimes very funny way in his newest and most mature film, Melancholia.

Melancholia is first, and foremost, the story of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose reactions to an impending cosmic threat, a planet dubbed Melancholia, clearly highlight the differences in their natures.

Von Trier opens the film in as unambiguous a way as he can.  The yet-unnamed planet of Melancholia hurtles forward on its collision course with Earth as our protagonists run about a dream-like, surreal landscape.  Each image exudes Von Trier's strong sense of Germanic Romanticism that is only heightened by the photography of Manuel Alberto Claro.  Each image is full of rich colors and the use of extreme slow motion allows for every frame to be deliciously devoured.  Never has the end of the world been so beautiful; the eventual merging of the two planets becomes even more spectacular as their atmospheres begin to blend in a dazzling light show.  The entrancing use of Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde solidifies Melancholia's opening as what might be the definitive illustration of the great romantic tragedy.

Melancholia can be taken literally as an enthralling story about the end of the world and its particular effects on its main characters, Justine and Claire, but it is more so about a state of mind.  Von Trier uses the setting and characters to explore what it means to be depressed, a theme that is prevalent in almost every aspect of Melancholia.

Melancholia is split into two distinct sections, named after the two sisters.  The first section focuses on Justine and her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at a lavish Swedish castle and golf course owned by her sister's husband (Keifer Sutherland).  Justine suffers from crippling depression and spends the night doing everything she can to escape from the ceremonies and her husband, who seems to only vaguely realize just how disconnected she has become.  Melancholia appears only as a twinkling red star in the sky and is immediately dismissed as merely that.

Justine's story is not only beautifully acted and shot, but it is a lot of fun as well.  The eccentric cast of characters that fill the castle not only provide well-paced revelations about the history of the family and its secrets, but also as unwilling members of a comedy of manners.  The twists and turns are dark, and at times incredibly hostile, but nevertheless exciting and full of an enticing element of mystery.

The second section of the film, named Claire, follows up on the reduced cast of characters several weeks after Justine's wedding.  Melancholia is no longer just a speck in the sky, but looms larger than the moon.  Claire is frightened of what appears to be impending doom, and what that means for her child, but is quickly silenced by her husband who stresses that Melancholia will just pass by.

Melancholia's approach begins to affect Justine, who seems resigned to her fate, in an odd way that begins to bother Claire.  As the planet approaches, Justine's strength returns as she looks to Melancholia as a symbol of strength, or even as her lover.  In one scene, we even see Justine "sunbathing" nude in the radiant, blue light of Melancholia.  The image is striking, beautiful, and comes as the first moment of pure unfettered release that the movie has to offer.

Claire's section is a bit harder to watch.  Although the ending is known, it is delivered in an emotional way that is elegant in the catharsis it provides and the pure terror it invokes.  Justine is faced head-on with her depression and wishes that the world would end in a startling and surprisingly realistic way.  She proves to Claire that despite her strength and willingness to push through her troubles it might not be enough to conquer the troubles that face them.

It is Kirsten Dunst's devastating portrayal of depression that delivers Melancholia's most lasting effect.  There is a beautiful elegance to the simplicity and subtleness of Dunst's performance.  Her beauty and fleeting smiles are at all times belied by a feeling of falseness.  Justine is clearly trying her hardest, despite her depression, to put on a show, one that quickly crumbles.  There isn't a moment that feels false in Dunst's performance, one that is allowed to evolve rapidly throughout the film.

Melancholia is amongst the strongest movies of the year.  It is beautiful in more ways than most films even dare to dream they could be.  Somehow, Lars von Trier has found a way to marry the state of depression and its effect on the human mind with the notion of facing mankind's ultimate oblivion in a way that operates as the greatest of romantic tragedies.  All of this is on display in the stunning and tragic approach of the titular planet of Melancholia.

3.5 / 4 Reels


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