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Saturday, January 3, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Melancholia (2011)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Country: Denmark/Sweden/France/Italy/Germany

There is no hope in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. The film begins at the end, with the earth being destroyed, obliterated into dust by a bigger, rogue planet. This is not a story of apocalypse averted, but rather a story of the end – inescapable, painful, and lonely – a story of depression and desperation. It is a film which begins with a dark, operatic, and entrancing prologue that sets out the narrative’s entire trajectory, and ends exactly as expected and in truly nightmarish and intense fashion. Yet, for all that, it is not a film bereft of comedy, nor is it a film which is relentlessly gloomy. Melancholia is a glorious, fascinating piece of work from one of cinema’s most consistent provocateurs.

The film is divided into two parts, each named for one of the sisters at the narrative’s core. The first part is named for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and takes place almost entirely during her wedding reception at the massive estate of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The reception is fraught with tension from the moment Justine and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), arrive. Aside from the fact that they are very late, which has upended the carefully arranged schedule of reception events and enraged the wedding planner (Udo Kier, in fine form), Justine and Claire’s parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) are openly feuding, and their mother toasts the new couple by delivering a short speech in which she expresses her disapproval of the institution of marriage and ends by saying, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” As the reception goes on, Justine’s behavior becomes increasingly alienating as her happy fa├žade gives way, revealing hints of the depression that lays underneath and bringing her marriage to a halt before it even officially gets started.

In part two, named for Claire, Justine has descended into a deep personal despair and returns to Claire and John’s home to be cared for by Claire. Meanwhile, a massive rogue planet named Melancholia is on a course with Earth, and though scientists optimistically hope that Earth will only experience a “fly by” from it, Claire is anxious about the possibility of a collision which would result in Earth being smashed into nothingness. As Claire begins to disappear into a morass of fear and desperation, Justine begins to emerge from her shell as if reinvigorated by impending doom. Knowing that the world is about to end, and that her fear that nothing matters has not been unfounded, has a freeing effect on Justine that allows her to become the calm, rational one as Claire begins anxiously spinning her wheels trying to find a solution which does not exist.

As conceived by von Trier and played by Dunst and Gainsbourg, Justine and Claire are the story’s yin and yang, providing such perfect balance to each other and balance within the narrative that even when they switch roles it does not disturb the equilibrium of the film. As Melancholia opens, Claire is the sensible one, the caretaker, the sister grounded in reality, while Justine is the flaky and undependable one, the one who doesn’t quite understand how to connect with the world the way that other people do (“I smile and I smile and I smile,” she laments to Claire, but she just can’t figure out how to feel happy). The hidden strengths of Justine’s character make her incompatible with life as we know it, but make her perfectly suited to deal with a reality in which Earth is facing its final hours, while Claire simply cannot fathom that there is nothing that she can do to stop the inevitable. There is one scene, in particular, which perfectly illuminates the difference between Justine and Claire: Justine lays out the things that she knows to be true, such as that the Earth is evil and that those on it are all alone, with just the slightest hint of satisfaction because she now knows that everything she always felt has been true after all; and Claire responds by asking where her son will grow up if Earth ceases to exist. Justine is at peace with what is about to occur, but Claire simply cannot accept it because it means acknowledging the mortality of her own child, and so Justine must take charge and guide Claire and her son through what remains of the time they have left.

The performances by Dunst (who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes) and Gainsbourg complement each other so beautifully that it’s difficult to consider one without the other. Both deliver performances that are precise and understated, even when Claire is panicking or Justine is outwardly expressing the anguish raging inside of her. In other hands, Melancholia’s story could have been an invitation for scenery chewing from beginning to end, but it is instead a film of great nuance and subtlety. I’ve watched it a number of times now and each time I get just a little bit more out of it, as if it is revealing some new layer on each occasion. While it may not be the most challenging or provocative of von Trier’s films, it is without question one of his best, most disciplined, and most visually stunning. Melancholia is a masterpiece.


Dell said...

I didn't get as much out of this movie as you did. It was good, but I didn't love it. Part of it is because I did find it relentlessly hopeless. That said, both Dunst and Gainsbourg were outstanding in their roles. For me, the other movie released around the same time with a similar premise worked much better, "Another Earth."

Norma Desmond said...

For sure, a von Trier film is never easy to love. I've heard of Another Earth but never seen it. Maybe I'll check it out.