Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two Views of “Melancholia”: The Sick Soul of Europe Has Morphed Into The Apocalypse

Eric’s View of Melancholia

      There were a number of European movies – practically a subgenre – released in the 1960s (La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura, Last Year at Marienbad) that presented the upper crust dealing with ennui and lost dreams, but also having a glamorous, decadent time of it too.  Pauline Kael referred to them as ‘the sick soul of Europe parties.’  Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is the latest in this line and it ups the ante by first showing another, newly discovered planet (Melancholia) crashing into Earth before merging
into the crazy family wedding subgenre (echoes of Lovers and Other Strangers, A Wedding, Margot at the Wedding, Rachel Getting Married).  The actual plot starts with Kirsten Dunst, as Justine, traveling to her wedding reception with her husband, played by Alexander Skarsgard, at a resort area owned by her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland

      Their parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) are the mold and mildew of the family and when the best man, played by Stellan Skarsgard, who is also Justine’s boss announces her promotion at the reception, but demands an assignment out of her by the morning, her stress results in both a wild sexual action and a pulling inward.  It’s difficult to say much else because there isn’t a whole lot of plot, though there are many incidents.  I cheered inwardly when John threw out the harpy mother, but then found out he’d done so before.  However, keep in mind that we know that Melancholia is still out there (like ‘the truth’ in The X Files) and as things become more serious and implacable, Justine who has been the depressive, emotionally unstable sister becomes stronger and more placid, whereas Claire, who has been the caretaker, begins to fall apart.  This may seem ironic, but it was something that von Trier learned when dealing with his own depression.

Kirsten Dunst
      Two major elements stand out in what makes the film a serious (and extremely well-praised) work.  Dunst is extraordinary because she doesn’t have a big monologue scene like Anne Hathaway’s toast in Rachel Getting Married.  In fact, she has very little dialogue at all.  Her performance is focused on her eyes and her skin tones and she delivers in a complex, almost quicksilver fashion.  The imagery recalls those earlier films and the dreamy, foreboding backgrounds of such 1920s and 1930s Surrealist painters as de Chirico, Magritte, and Delvaux.  The jittery camerawork that is a signifier of von Trier’s films and which has influenced other filmmakers and reality TV producers is employed through the first half of the movie that is titled ‘Justine’ yet is replaced by longer takes in the second half that is titled ‘Claire.’  It’s a tough movie and I can’t say that I loved it because I was tired but then felt depressed watching it and the only way to mitigate that was to shrug it off.  I recognize that it’s a potentially great work, but it’s not one that I can whole-heartedly recommend and the last time I felt like that – for different reasons –  about a film of this caliber was Goodfellas.  

Neil’s View of Melancholia

One of the Haunting Settings in Melancholia
      Lars Von Trier’s latest film starts out with what appears to be still shots that slowly evolve into slow motion footage.  It was so slow we were getting the giggles, something that would never happen if we were viewing it in a theater.   They were depressingly beautiful images that seemed to be leading to nowhere.  Then the story began on the day of Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding.  The central plot of the movie was a planet (Melancholia) possibly on course to hit the earth.  We don’t know when, or if, that would happen but the planet was viewed as the couple went into their lavish reception.  They’re late, and the bride kept disappearing to the annoyance of everyone.  What was she up to?  The entire first act was devoted to answering that question, and at the end her answer to the question would be another question, “What did you expect”?

      This was one dysfunctional family that was totally believable (even with all their eccentricities), mainly due to the casting of the parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) and Justine’s sister and brother-in-law (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland).  They’re all credible as real life relatives, but questionable in their love for one another.  Claire was the exception and she seemed totally devoted to making sure her emotionally disturbed sister was happy and performing at her best.  

      The second act was Claire’s story and it began a few days after the wedding.  Claire was obsessed with the off course planet, but reassured by her husband that all the scientists were positive it would not hit the earth.  Yet, Justine caught him hoarding supplies for a potential disaster. 

      All of the performances were subtle with the exception of Charlotte Rampling.  Her “out there” views on life called for a soured, bitchy speech and she bitingly delivered it.  John Hurt sat her off as the ex-husband, and his absence in all of their lives called for the laid back performance that he gave.  Charlotte Gainsbourg had the most vocal performance, which she unfurled in a quiet, well-calculated manner.  Kiefer Sutherland came across as the arrogant and in control scientist that we’re led to believe that he was.  Alexander Skarsgard as the groom was obviously devoted to Justine and equally misled, giving another believable performance in a far-fetched situation.  Kirsten Dunst gave an understated performance of what appeared to be a fragile character that was acted with facial and body language for a large part of the role.

A Garden View from Tjoloholm Castle
in Sweden Where Melancholia Was Filmed
      For me, the movie was not about a wedding or the end of the earth.  It was about individuals and how they deal with everyday occurrences that are out of their control.  Do we live in fear all of our lives, or do we face the things that cannot be changed by creating a safe place within our minds?  It was also about people not being as they appeared to be.  Are those that convey gentleness and concern what we term “normal”, or are the slightly crazy ones actually the more capable of surviving?

Melancholia is currently available through Movies on Demand, and simultaneously in select market theaters.

Looks like the guys are wanting to become the next Siskel & Ebert.

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