Sunday, November 27, 2011

MELANCHOLIA (2011)

Written & Directed by Lars von Trier


Where & When: AFI Fest, Chinese 6 Theaters, Hollywood, CA. November 8, 2011  3:15PM



"Melancholia", the latest film by Lars von Trier, one of cinema's  most controversial figures, opens with an eerie but breathtakingly beautiful slow-motion montage of highlighted moments from the film set to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde". It plays, in many ways, like a music video  that perfectly conveys a sense of the impending doom that is to follow this segment.

The film is split in to two parts with the first focusing on Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young bride who is arriving very late to her own lavish wedding with her future husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). It is being held at the mansion of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is annoyed but hardly surprised while her boorish husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) feels the need to repeatedly remind Justine how much he spent paying for this affair.

After the couple are finally married, the reception begins with plenty of booze, dancing and drama. Justine's jovial father (John Hurt) toasts the newlyweds but his bitter ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling) puts a damper on the party by proclaiming that she doesn't believe in marriage while the wedding planner (Udo Kier) refuses to look at Justine any longer since he feels that her tardy appearance ruined his wedding.

Justine has been secretly behaving like the happy bride throughout the evening but when able to sneak away from the festivities, she takes a bath, then retreats in her usual depressed mood, while struggling to find a way to maintain the smiling facade for the sake of her marriage.

The second half deals with Claire as she brings her sister to her home to live with her husband and young son months after the wedding. The reason is that Justine has fallen in to such a deep, catatonic state that she is not able to find the strength to even get in to a bathtub.

Claire has become anxious herself due to a giant planet, called Melancholia, that appears to be heading on a collusion course straight in to Earth. Her husband, who is a self-proclaimed expert on astrology, assures her that it will miss hitting our planet but she is not completely convinced. His prediction turns out not to be accurate as Melancholia slowly moves closer to our planet. As the end seems to draw near, Claire is inconsolably panic-stricken, fearing for her son's life but a sense of calm and inner peace falls over Justine as she finally has a clearer understanding of the meaning of her life.

I have never been a big fan of the films of Mr. von Trier as I find his vision to be daunting, extremely challenging and unpleasantly dark with not much of a payoff in the end, which was certainly the case of his last film, 2009's "Antichrist" but "Melancholia" is his most accessible and conventional film to date with even a surprising touch of sweetness that managed to sneak it's way in. While it is still uneven with moments throughout that feel random and overlong but the film is a thrilling visual wonder, most especially the conclusion which offers an ending that is disturbing, terrifying and yet so completely captivating that it actually left me speechless in my seat.

Since her major breakthrough at the age of ten in "Interview With a Vampire" in 1994 , Ms Dunst has not been given many opportunities to showcase her full range as an actress although there were a few roles that hinted at her potential, such as the films, "The Virgin Suicides", "Marie Antoinette" and last year's, "All Good Things" but in "Melancholia" she's finally has the chance in a brutally, raw performance that takes her on a full range of deep and complex emotions. Ms Dunst won the Best Actress Award at Cannes this year and she certainly deserves an Oscar nod for her work here.

Ms Gainsbourg, who herself won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance in "Antichrist", is equally impressive as the caring and protective older sister whose steely exterior crumbles as she is overcome with fear and hopelessness as our planet approaches it's final end.

One thing that can be said about Mr.von Trier is that he is certainly a polarizing figure with just as many film audiences finding him a daring, cinematic genius as those who find his work unnecessarily fractious and misogynistic. He has also been called a manic-depressive, who desperately needs to seek additional help due to some comments he made at this year's Cannes Film Festival before a screening of "Melancholia" that made him seem like a Nazi sympathizer (which may or may not have been his attempt at humor) and as a result, caused him to be banned from the festival.

It 's clear that von Trier thoroughly enjoys provoking, shocking and using his own painful experiences to create work which will explore his bleak world view while stimulating conversation by expressing ideas that will most certainly make members of the audience agitated and uncomfortable. While he is still very much an artist who is troublesome, excessive, provocative and somewhat juvenile but with "Melancholia", Mr. von Trier has found a way to restrain some of these impulses to create a film that will allow viewers to see that he is also capable of creating a sublime film that is remarkably poignant, reflective and touching. "Melancholia" is a film that will linger in your mind for a long while after seeing it.