(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
On the heels of Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (which I reviewed earlier this month) I sat down for another film I had been anticipating. It also starts with an “M” and- as Vulture pointed out- the two are almost the exact same film. What are the odds of that happening?
Well it doesn’t matter, really. I’m talking about Lars von Trier’s latest, Melancholia. I was kind of destined to see it. As controversial as von Trier can be his work has spoken to me over the past ten years, particularly the way he chooses to express himself through female characters.
In this case the film roots itself in the psyches of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But there’s more to it than that. Melancholia examines the way people accept inevitabilities. It’s a study of depression. It’s also an apocalyptic story, although I would liken it to the personal journey you take in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (whether on the page or onscreen). It’s an isolated part of a larger picture, leaving the audience to imagine the rest of the devastation.
It also has no interest in creating suspense. The film begins with a slew of visual clues and spoilers, playing out in a slo-mo sequence similar to the opening of Antichrist (2009). We see what is to come, as well as what will be. It was an interesting choice on von Trier’s part, and keeps with the theme of accepting what we’re afraid of. At one point during the film Justine observes, “I know things,” and as an audience so do we. The prologue is a glimpse into what Justine may already have known all along.
However, most of the film isn’t fixated on what is to come. It is firmly focused on its present situation, a wedding party at an estate shared by Claire and her wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The bride, Justine, and the groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), arrive two hours late, causing an immediate rift between the sisters. This rift only grows as Justine continuously disappears and withdraws throughout the night, wandering through the golf course and looking at the stars.
Over the course of the party we meet everyone else in the sisters’ immediate circle. There is their bitter, unfeeling mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling). There is their free-wheeling but rather selfish father, Dexter (John Hurt). There is Justine’s nightmare of a boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), and his protege, Tim (Brady Corbet). There are minor players such as the butler, Little Father (Jesper Christensen), and the frustrated wedding planner (Udo Kier). And lastly, there is Claire and John’s son, Leo (Cameron Spurr), a quiet and unflappable boy who might be the most likeable member in the family.
What is interesting is that with a few exceptions, von Trier doesn’t keep these characters around for long. They provide an emotional context, but not much more. What matters in the end are the sisters.
The remainder of the film is remarkably quiet in comparison. A clinically depressed Justine returns to the estate some time later. The party guests are gone. The mansion is nearly empty. Claire and John try to help her cope but her despair is so deep she can’t manage to bathe or eat.
Then there is the impending doom. There is concern about an approaching planet that may collide with Earth, a “fly-by” named Melancholia. The sullen Justine is indifferent to the threat. Claire is terrified of it, scrambling to understand and deny it at the same time. Their actions and reactions reveal that the mentally ill sister is better suited for coping with this sort of thing. Her calmness is almost saint-like; the way she views situations unfailingly clear.
Then everything culminates with one of the most memorable endings I’ve seen in years. Say what you will about him, von Trier knows when to end a film. He also knows how to burn the final image into your brain.
I’d say Melancholia is one of the best films to come out in 2011. For my part I heartily enjoyed the dysfunctional family festivities. No one does weddings or taps into family dynamics quite like von Trier, and the scenes reminded me of Breaking The Waves (1996) and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998)- both of which I own. Although the wedding highlights some serious issues, particularly Justine’s mental well-being, it is infused with unexpected subtleties and humor. The dinner speeches are at times awkward and inappropriate. Dexter has brought two dates and refers to every woman as “Betty.” The wedding planner is having the worst night of his life, and the fact that Udo Kier plays him only makes it funnier. When Justine is late for another event, he says, “She ruined my wedding. I will not look at her.” He spends the rest of his scenes shielding his face with his hands.
Each performance seems effortless but unshakably real. The supporting players have the most fun (as usual)- Hurt, Rampling and Stellan Skarsgård all get their moments. It was amusing to see Sutherland play someone incredibly rich and uptight, walking around and muttering to himself before threatening to throw out his wife’s family (I kept thinking, “You’re Jack Bauer, dude. Just shoot them”). And, for the first time, I was particularly struck by Alexander Skarsgård as Michael. It was the first time I’ve seen him playing a real person, someone quite sensitive, hopelessly in love and kind of a bumbling fool. It was a welcome change. I actually felt something for his character rather than being scared of him (it’s a long story). With this performance he managed to change my mind.
While defending Antichrist von Trier claimed that the male characters in his films are idiots who think they know everything. The men in Melancholia are no exception, and he goes a step further by proving just how disposable they can be. It is with the female characters that von Trier’s allegiance truly lies: “The women are much more human, and much more real. It’s the women I identify with in all my films.” According what I’ve read and watched, Justine is heavily based on the director himself. She is the centerpiece of the film, with the overwrought Claire anchoring the film in reality- our reality. Like Claire, most of us would be scared shitless if a giant planet was hurtling toward us.
Of course, Dunst and Gainsbourg give 110% while fulfilling their roles. Both are fearless, and Dunst’s work here renders her unrecognizable. There’s a reason why she won the Best Actress award at Cannes. Melancholia proves that she may have underestimated herself throughout her career. This is about as far from Bring It On as you can get. She is understated but strong, dominating every scene she is in by doing very little. Considering her onscreen competition- particularly in the first half of the film- this isn’t easy to do.
What amuses me is all the people who will watch Melancholia for the wrong reasons: not to understand depression, how people react to a hopeless situations or even because they enjoy films in general. There will be men who rent it to see Dunst completely naked for the first time (which, I have to say, kind of floored me). Then there will be the True Blood fans who will watch it and say: “How can you be married to Alexander Skarsgård and, like, still be sad? I don’t get it.”
My only advice to those people is, “Check the title, dude. Don’t know what the word means? Get a dictionary.”