Friday, November 11, 2011


It's Lars' World!  Party Time!  Excellent!

Kirsten Dunst as Justine in Lars Von Trier's drama "Melancholia". 
Magnolia Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 11, 2011

Lars Von Trier's world at Cannes was halted earlier this year, but in his new drama "Melancholia", a beautiful, balletic opera of depression and the banal, the director's world comes wondrously alive with feeling, grace and sobering devastation.

Justine (a potent Kirsten Dunst, 2011 Cannes Best Actress winner) has a problematic relationship with her older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Justine is convinced that the planet is going to be hit by another planet called Melancholia and that everyone on Earth will die.  Justine's brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) is skeptical.

"Melancholia" opens with some of the most arresting imagery and music score in any film this year, so much so that what we see is not only foreshadowing but poetry in motion.  The palette cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro chooses distinctly divides the look of the film into what is two stories.  The first focuses on Justine's wedding with Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, "Straw Dogs") at Claire and John's golden-bronze toned palatial estate.  The second is about the days after the wedding and the ensuing bleak realities, and is shot in a stark but faded color scheme.

Like all filmmakers Mr. Von Trier's films take on his personality but even more so than most other directors (except Woody Allen) his own neuroses, maladies and personal issues with depression.  The early scene involving a limousine trying to make it through the countryside, and the subsequent ceremonial toast to the young newly-weds seems to reek of the director's disdain for procedure and ceremonial artifice, which he mocks at every turn here.  Justine's mother (Charlotte Rampling) fervently objects to weddings.  "I hate weddings", she says with disgust during the special evening.  Much of the banter around the dinner tables resembles the cutting exchanges in Thomas Vinterberg's wicked and brilliant 1998 satire "The Celebration" (Festen), and Mr. Von Trier thanks his Danish compatriot in the closing credits.

"Melancholia" itself is a satire, and in it minutiae is beaten up like a piñata, often to hilarious effect, especially in the glossy, elegant first story.  Justine is an entranced observer, disconnected from the proceedings.  Her mind is elsewhere.  She has just been promoted by her fashion advertising boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and he has a weasily minder (Brady Corbet, "Martha Marcy") who follows Justine around seeking a slogan for an advertising campaign featuring scantily-clad women.  The campaign is more the director's running in-joke about the women he uses in his films.  Everyone -- every character in the film, including Justine, who at times is wretched -- is a manifestation of Lars Von Trier.

Ms. Dunst inhabits Justine with equal parts caution and reckless abandon.  She's bold, enigmatic, erratic and unpredictable -- just the kind of imbalance and physicality in performance that merits not only the director's appetite for rigor but also an Academy Award nomination.  Claire (a contained performance by Ms. Gainsbourg) is immensely irritated by her distant sister, and John is forever rankled by Justine's and her mother's itinerant ways. 

Throughout this highly enjoyable adventure of bad manners, awkwardness and doom Mr. Von Trier lets the audience breathe, even in the most savage of conversations and situations.

"Melancholia" might be termed a vacation, a clear-cut 180 degrees from the director's unremitting and shocking "Anti-Christ" (2009), which featured Ms. Gainsbourg front and center, culminating in a moment of unconscionable and graphic violence.  The director is known for putting his leading ladies through the ringer in the extreme on and off screen, whether with Emily Watson ("Breaking The Waves"), Bjork ("Dancer In The Dark", arguably Mr. Von Trier's most lucid and elegant film), Nicole Kidman ("Dogville") and Bryce Dallas Howard ("Manderlay").

Elegant and spare in setting and mood, "Melancholia" revels in the director's state of mind and the artistry of depression, and is anything but depressing to look at.  The film's visual effects are amazing to behold.  The director's script is not surprisingly full of Von Trierisms.  There's a reference to the real-life father he didn't care for, notably in Von Trier alum John Hurt's voiceover when he reads a letter his character leaves, a note ending contemptuously with the words, "your stupid Dad."

In "Melancholia" Mr. Von Trier has crafted a film that examines what happens when the pomp and circumstance of the superficial and the elites is over and the real world (or real other planet) invades.  ("Melancholia" is the latest 2011 film, "Take Shelter" is among the others, to explore the end of the world.)  The film's second story (or second half) is an oddly comforting and liberating journey even as disaster is sure to strike.  There's a haunting beauty and comedy in it, including a parody of American fear and hysteria, as seen with Mr. Sutherland's John.  Depression and the apocalypse are made entertaining, and I never thought Mr. Von Trier would be the architect of such a fantasy.  

To that end, "Melancholia" is an accessible and delightful surprise, and of all of Mr. Von Trier's films it's the one that lets its audience down the most gently.  As such it may be the most mainstream feature film he's ever done.  The last image of "Melancholia" has a spectacular power and strange, transfixing ecstasy that's undeniable.  All the while you sense that Mr. Von Trier was grinning mischievously during that final scene.  He probably had immense fun directing it.  "Melancholia" is Lars' world and I was anything but depressed at the results.  All other controversies and issues aside, he's a great filmmaker.

With: Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, Jesper Christiansen, Cameron Spurr, Gary Whitaker.

"Melancholia" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language.  The film's running time is two hours and 17 minutes.

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