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For Your Consideration: 'Melancholia'

If you have not realized it yet, you will die. If there is one thing of which you can be certain, it is that your days upon this planet are numbered. As obvious as that seems -- and most of us come to this realization quite young -- people often suddenly react to some development in life as if it suddenly makes them aware of the limits of time. Whether doomsayers are right about the supposed end predicted by the Mayan calendar, the imminent (and continually rescheduled) rapture or other world-ending cataclysm, or that enormous blue planet that was hiding behind the sun and is now hurtling toward an apocalyptic date with Earth does not alter the fact of your own inevitable demise.

In Melancholia, the stately, expansive new film from Lars von Trier, the implacable approach of the eponymous heavenly body, like an evil star in ancient astrology (and, like astrology, mostly nonsense, shown with stunning CGI effects by Pixomondo and Platige Image), may be the cause of the saturnine disposition of the leading lady, played by Kirsten Dunst -- or it may be only a justification of her own long-term negativity about the world. As Justine, a pretty, young creative writer of advertising, Dunst paints an infuriating and accurate portrayal of the personal disaster of depression, as she sabotages her own wedding (to a well-meaning but clueless Alexander Skarsgård) and alienates everyone who cares about her. No one can really blame Justine, given that she was apparently born this way and that she had despicably dysfunctional parents -- the sentimental yet suspiciously touchy John Hurt and the imperious Charlotte Rampling, who gives the acid-tongued wedding toast all of us have probably dreamed of making at some point. As is true in real life, unfortunately, people do blame her. Only her long-suffering sister and substitute maternal figure, Claire (played with patience by Charlotte Gainsbourg), remains devoted to her, in spite of Justine's many reasons to make herself hated.

In the Renaissance, melancholy was thought to inspire both artistic creativity and, in the worst cases, insanity. That combination seems to be behind Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I, from 1514, commonly interpreted as a self-portrait of the artistic temperament given over to imagination, which traps even the winged figure of genius in inaction. This seems to be the case for Dunst's Justine, who is hounded by her employer, played ruthlessly by Stellan Skarsgård, at the wedding reception for a tag line for his latest ad campaign -- and for Lars von Trier himself, who has long struggled with depression, often rendering him unable to work.

On the other hand, it is hard to feel sorry for Justine, or for Claire, whose story is brought more clearly into focus in the second part of the film. To use a contemporary metaphor, the film does not concern itself with how the 99% would react to the possibility of a cataclysm: there is no looting or lawlessness in evidence in the privileged lives of von Trier's characters. The entire film takes place at a secluded estate in an unspecified country, and in general the 1%-type tragedies that these wealthy people face, like Justine having wasted the outrageous sum spent by her brother-in-law (the vain, grouchy Kiefer Sutherland) on a failed wedding or Claire being shocked that the butler (a brilliantly dry Jesper Christensen, of The Debt) has not reported for work with a planetary collision looming, do not really garner much sympathy. I should have such problems.

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Melancholia is an intensely beautiful film (cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro), with a tidal pace that may annoy many viewers, as will the frank examination of the unpleasantness of dealing with someone with depression. Von Trier has done a much better job of incorporating his story with its cosmic backdrop than a film with which it must inevitably be compared, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. The film feels longer than its 2.5-hour running time, because of the sense of suspension of time produced by von Trier's looping, sometimes non-narrative storytelling. The awkward cutting and splicing of the music from the prelude to Act I of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which returns obsessively to the opening theme of that music like a manic tic or the gravitational pull of the approaching planet, bothered me at times, as it will anyone who is familiar with that opera -- but it did not annoy me as much as it did Alex Ross.

As far as von Trier's films go, Melancholia is one of the easiest to watch, since it does not confront the viewer so irritatingly with unpleasant subjects as some of his other movies (Dogville, Antichrist, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, actually pretty much all of them). He also peppers the film with humor, like the bitchy wedding planner played by Udo Kier, in ways that do not undermine the seriousness of the story but that do help put the viewer more at ease. Don't worry, von Trier will be back in that territory soon enough: Charlotte Gainsbourg, it is being reported (in spite of von Trier's ouster from the Cannes Festival last spring, over an off-the-cuff remark about being a Nazi), will star in von Trier's next film, The Nymphomaniac, to be released in two versions, more and less raunchy.

This film is still screening at the recently reopened West End Cinema, at 23rd and M Streets NW, a theater we mourned when it went out of business and are glad to see back in action.

Tim Page, Filmmaker’s audacious teaming of his ‘Melancholia’ with Wagner’s music (Washington Post, December 23)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw it last week. Magnificent. The images in the abstract prologue are so overwhelming that I feared I would not make it through the film’s first few minutes – von Trier, fortunately, shifts gears to a more naturalistic approach for the remainder of the film, with echoes of the prologue’s images arising in a way that is beautifully plotted and richly satisfying; I know of no other director with such a magisterial and transcendant command of the smallest nuances of image (the expressionistic manipulations of landscape in Antichrist are unlike anything else I have ever seen).

The stellar — so to speak — cast is a delight (Udo Kier! John Hurt!); and if the film is not scientifically realistic (as was clearly not intended), I found it captured the desolate twilight mood of what the end of the world would really be like – or, at least, how the more thoughtful and non-looting-inclined would like it to be.