Friday, February 22, 2019

Melancholia (2011)

[Original 2011 Movie of the Year ballot here. This review first published May 24, 2013.]

Denmark / Sweden / France / Germany, 136 minutes
Director/writer: Lars von Trier
Photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Music: Richard Wagner
Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Kiefer Sutherland

I stumbled a little over my misgivings about director and writer Lars von Trier and actually needed to see this a couple of times before it clicked. Not that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, ever, sitting twice through a movie that lasts more than two hours, let alone one by von Trier. But it worked for me. Or maybe I've just been in the mood lately for the end of the world. A friend put it on a DVD for me with more such tales, Last Night (the 1998 Canadian film), Perfect Sense, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, all of which suited my mood as well.

But Melancholia was the class of the bunch. In both Melancholia and his most recent before that, Antichrist, von Trier calculatedly puts a number of similar unlikely elements in juxtaposition: beautiful photography, beautiful music, fantastic and gruesome plot points, and a thick overlay of debilitating depression. And stars, in this case most notably Kirsten Dunst, who takes on not just one of the bravest roles I've seen attempted by her, but by anyone. She puts herself in a special class with this. I'm not talking about the nudity, thought that by itself would qualify for bravery. The depths of depression that she plumbs here feel personal, and deeply authentic, so much so that watching them almost starts to feel like a violation itself.

On another level, of course, Melancholia is very funny, mordant and acid. Following a lengthy (and stupendously lovely) prologue that foreshadows the whole thing on a planetary scale, the first half actually has very little to do with the science fiction premise the picture is known for, indeed occurs before anyone has even learned of this new planet Melancholia. The first half is rather the remarkably joyless wedding day of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who among other things is over two hours late for the reception and then keeps disappearing, making the peevish privileged guests stand around waiting for each orchestrated ritual.

A lot of this is plain old-fashioned class warfare, mocking the bourgeoisie gleefully and with energy. And it works, rolling from scene to scene with irresistible rhythms, even as Justine quietly implodes. Set in the mellow umber glow of an old-world style hotel resort "with full 18-hole golf course," the upholstered wealthy elegantly express their self-involved views of themselves and the world as refracted through each one's individual prism, and/or wage petty and exhausted battles with one another.

The event is hosted by Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who responds to Justine's ongoing meltdown and imminent emotional collapse by cataloging for her how much it is costing him. Justine's and Claire's parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), long since divorced, are awful. They stand and say things such as, "I just have one thing to say. Enjoy it while it lasts. I myself hate marriage." Needless to say, the evening does not go well for anyone.

It's a nice setup for the second half because in many ways these dismal events serve to make the end of the world almost welcome. There's a certain slice of science fiction subgenre Melancholia fits into pretty neatly: the discovery of a planet in the same orbital plane as Earth, previously hidden by the sun. Consequences follow. Another Earth is another recent example, but it seems to be a tradition in science fiction. I like to think it comes out of or is associated in some way with a 19th-century central Europe literary tradition, a preoccupation with doppelgangers (mysterious virtual twin beings).

At any rate, by the time of Part Two, the new planet has been discovered, named ("Melancholia," which is both poignant and hilarious), and is increasingly visible in the sky. Enter beautiful photography, by which I mean essentially outer space photography (which many of us look at daily on the Internet) along with shots of daytime and nighttime sky, with a slightly unfamiliar planetary orb hanging in it. It's not entirely unfamiliar, of course, because we see the moon all the time. But it's often the wrong size and color and has the wrong features to be the moon, so its appearance can be very unsettling.

The Wagner, the theme from Tristan and Isolde, is also remarkably effective here. This is all fantastic business von Trier is juggling, the end of the world (on which he even, ludicrously, raises the stakes further by making it also the certain end of all life in the universe) and cataclysmic disaster on a planetary scale, all of it shrewdly designed to illustrate, more or less, how it feels to be depressed.

Thus the photography works as a normalizing element, mostly providing familiarity, and the Wagner further grounds the action in a context of human-scale civilization and Nietzschean will to power. Perhaps most fascinating, von Trier simply sidesteps the issue of mass response, never showing a television screen or newspaper, dwelling in a household where it appears to be forbidden, as Claire discovers when she goes online for information and is scolded for it. In many ways, skewering the rich for their insulation in the first half simply sets up these odd circumstances of the second half, in which, with these characters we know now but don't particularly like, we watch the dance of death between Melancholia and Earth. This is a pretty good picture all the way, but the ending just might be the best part.

Top 20 of 2011
1. Melancholia
2. Damsels in Distress
3. A Separation
4. Margaret
5. The Raid: Redemption
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin
7. Trollhunter
8. Young Adult
9. The Cabin in the Woods
10. Super 8
11. Limitless
12. Paul
13. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
14. Drive
15. The Grey
16. Project Nim
17. The Future
18. The Turin Horse
19. Win Win
20. Beginners

Other write-ups: The Tree of Life

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