Saturday, October 15, 2011

Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier has always been known for his brutally emotional films.  Melancholia is no different, though it appears to be his most polished film since The Element of Crime.  The cinematography is gorgeous and the CG effects are used so perfectly, that they enhance the film without hitting us over the head like so many Hollywood films tend to do these days.  Von Trier's unfortunate Nazi comments shouldn't take away from the power of the film, which shows him tapping creatively into his own bouts with depression.

The film is broken into three parts.  Starting with a dreamy and gorgeous prelude which functions almost like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.  Instead of words, only the images and sound sets the tone and the mood for what will follow.

Part One - Justine

The story follows two sisters, the first of these, Justine (Kirsten Dunst),  is shown on her wedding day.  She and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard) are introduced already in the midst of a struggle.  Their limo cannot make it up the winding driveway to bring them to their reception, and becomes hopelessly stuck.  It's a simple way to introduce the couple, and it paints a picture of the larger difficulties to come.

Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) have thrown the party at their own home, an enormous estate in the midst of a private 18 hole golf course.  When the couple arrive two hours late to the reception, Claire, a control freak, is rubbed the wrong way from the beginning.  Justine notices a strange star on the horizon, glowing red in the night sky.  She finds herself unsettled by its appearance.  Add in some crazy parents, a boss that hounds her to come up with copy for an ad campaign on her wedding day, the nephew he tells to get it from her that night or he's fired, a hinted at problem with mental instability, and a husband powerless to help her keep it all together, and you have a hint of the dark path this normally happy wedding day takes.

Justine starts out a glowing, beautiful, and confidant bride, but ends the night broken, dishevelled, and uncertain once everything has unraveled, including her marriage.  Claire ends up being a point of strength for Justine, someone stable she can lean on when she can't stand on her own.

Part Two - Claire

The focus has now shifted to Claire, who we find taking care of Justine after she's had some sort of breakdown.  Claire helps to bathe and feed her since Justine hasn't the energy to take care of herself.  John, ever the confident husband, watches in judgement, disapproving of the time, effort, and money spent trying to rehabilitate Justine while their son Leo watches unaware of what's wrong with his aunt.

The star that had troubled Justine the night of her wedding turns out to be a mysterious planet that will fly past the Earth.  Claire fears it will collide with, and destroy the planet.  She obsesses about it.  John is confident that won't happen, and is excited about its appearance.

This second half of the film is about watching the scales tilt as Claire slowly becomes the unstable and irrational sister, while Justine appears to be the rational one.  Their roles have now reversed.

All of the characters in this film appear to represent facets of how depression is dealt with.  John is denial, Claire is fear and panic, while Justine becomes acceptance in the face of the inevitable.  It's a bleak message, but then again von Trier isn't known for his comedic chops.  They're all helpless to stop the impending destruction.  There's no escape from death.  It's something everyone has to look forward to.  It's just how you face it.  The same can be said for how people face depression.  Will it be with strength and courage, or will it be fear and panic?

The film is gorgeous, enjoyable (if that can be said about a film with such a dark message), and one of the better films I've seen in a long time.

Rent it here:

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