Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wedding crashers -- 'Melancholia' review

And you thought it was bad having Owen Wilson and Vince Vaugn turn up at your wedding. Try having a whole planet ruin the show. Lars von Trier's apocalyptic drama of dysfunction, "Melancholia," is one of the most poetic, harrowing, and pessimistic films of the year, as one might expect with an even fleeting knowledge of von Trier's career. Those who admire him because of, or in spite of, his enfant terible attitude toward culture and the cultural industry that sustains him, will feel a familiar sense of oppression in "Melancholia" squarely channeled through feminine protagonists.

Similar to 2009's "Antichrist," the style of the film weaves in and out of his naturalistic, handheld style that favors lots of quick zooms, bouncy close-ups, and some extended shots of characters grappling with depression and despair; as well as a hyper-stylized slow motion technique that performs just the opposite function, letting us salvage a sense of beautiful composition in the face of the ugliness of the content.

The opening ten minutes of "Melancholia" show the end of the world in stunning grandeur. From the perspective of our sister protagonists, we watch the world literally crumble and melt before Melancholia, an apty named and hauntingly blue planet, collides with Earth. Quite a way to start the picture, and quite a way to form a response to Hollywood's recent obsession with the end-times. There's not hyperkinetic action or death-defying stunts. There are visual effects, but they certainly aren't showy or "cool." There's not one A-list celebrity who narrowly makes it out alive with a scrappy band of survivors. Rather, it's quite the opposite, a total inversion of everything we've come to expect from the spectacle of the world ending. The beautiful music and the rather painterly quality of the images von Trier produces in his slowed-to-stillness images invite us to admire the spectacle, even as it introduces a rather intense level of uneasiness.

That uneasiness carries well into the first hour of the film. After our "prologue," we jump back in time just a few nights to Justine's (Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception. Held in a remote, lavish castle with its own golf course (there's something almost Fellini-esque about the decadence of the decor), she and her new husband show up incredible late, to the ire of her well-to-do brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who are funding the reception. For the next hour, the film rather painfully (in a good, cringe-worthy kind of way) wanders through a series of horrid interactions between Justine and her family. We get glimpses of her immensely dysfunctional relationship to her divorced parents (John Hurt and a particularly effective Charlotte Rampling); she wants to take a nap instead of cutting the cake; and she even goes off to have sex with a guest of the party on the golf course.

Clearly, there's something wrong with Justine. Though we learn something of her successful professional career, Dunst is effective at creating a series of masks for the character that are gradually stripped to reveal an empty, depressed personality seemingly incapable of connecting to the world around her. This may, to tease out von Trier's suggestion, have quite a bit to do with the breakdown of her family, and it's the continued tension between family members that informs much of the film's drama.

"Melancholia" never leaves the castle. Even after the guests depart, Justine, Claire and John stay behind and learn that the titular blue planet is on a collision course with Earth. Part two of the film is, as per von Trier's title cards, designed to reflect Claire's personality, while the first part reflected Justine's. Whereas the first half of the film uses a wedding -- a social gathering -- as impetus to uproot the depression lurking behind the family construct, the second half introduces a much larger problem: How do we deal with the end of the world? Claire's relationship with her husband, who embodies the "von Trier-ian" Man Who Thinks He Knows Everything, worsens as he insists the planet will pass Earth and her depression reaches hysterical heights, while Justine resigns herself more and more to the emptiness of life and the fatality of their situation.

As the blue planet looms ever closer, von Trier rather beautifully uses science fiction as a way to get deeper into the problems that exist between his characters. This is not the first time von Trier has used generic elements as catalyst or guide to hist intimate character studies. "Europa" and "The Element of Crime" take place in highly formalized futuristic landscapes, while "Antichrist" forms much of its meaning out of a crucial intertext with the horror genre. Here, the end of the world is an opportunity to place front and center a rather stomach-churning question: if the world blew up, would we be missed?

For much of the film, these characters in their insulated bickering space seem beyond redemption and hope, yet in a surprising move that belies almost everything we've come to associate von Trier with, the final moments hinge on an act of compassion that suggests beneath all of this horror, the capacity to love somehow endures. If the apocalypse of Earth deprives the universe of anything, it would be compassion.

"Melancholia" is, as I've seen a few people point out, the inverse of "The Tree of Life." Where that film celebrated the creation of Earth and the presence of God while navigating a complicated family construct, "Melancholia" impends the end of Earth, seems to believe we're all alone, and for most of its runtime leaves little room to rejoice in the world as we've left it.

This is the most complete film Lars von Trier has made in years. It startles and arrests because not only does it oppress us with its characters' increasing depression, it has an oddly beautiful vision. Von Trier, after a rather horrible case of foot-in-mouth disease at Cannes, should still be regarded as one of the world's most important directors. He has channeled such uncompromising bleakness with a blend of personal dilemma. The story he enacts feels like his own need to grapple with a personal depression and a concern about whether there is an innate goodness to humanity. As in life, there's no way to tell. All that's clear is that sometimes you have to live some days like it's your last.

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