Monday, November 28, 2011


Strong cinematic emotions stir ardently when the name Lars von Trier is mentioned. The infamous Dane is a prankster, provocateur and has been called genius, misanthropic, misogynistic and perhaps even downright evil-- he doesn't help himself in the soft and cuddly department when he (jokingly) sympathizes with Nazis either.  It's the craft and scope and intensity of his films, however, that whether loved or hated-- and that's all relative in his case, as it's quite possible to be on both sides of the fence for many of his projects-- that distinguish him as a filmmaker not easy to discount or completely write off.  His latest, a wistfully romantic dreamlike opera is perhaps his most ambitious, yet also his softest and as strange as it seems, warmly humanistic.  Melancholia could describe its characters, but it also the name of a planet that is striking close to hitting Earth; that end of days hysteria strikes the most civilized in von Trier's cinematic track record may be the ultimate prank the auteur has set for his audience.  Emotionally, however, it's easily one of his most accessible and lovely triumphs-- each image almost impossibly pretty and poetic, and while this is most certainly not a film for everyone, it's difficult to shake the experience of a seasoned filmmaker boldly and refreshingly tinkering with the possibilities and marvels of film.

Melancholia seems to float from it's opening sequence-- a wondrously shot sequence set to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde-- there's fleeting and soft shots of our characters stuck and grounded and sad and terrified.  Whether it's meant to be a dream, an allusion matters little-- it's gentle and lulling, yet strong and stirring and beautifully poetic prelude.  It's in the opening shots that von Trier provokes with uncommon gentleness and teases his audience with something rich, splendid and alive.  It's an invitation to something exciting and unique.  The story itself starts with a wedding, an extravagant affair at a regal estate.  The newlyweds are Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and are introduced jovially and happily.  The castle is owned by Justine's nervy sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her astronomer husband John (Kiefer Sutherland.)  The wedding in running behind schedule, a matter that makes Claire and John (who have spent a fortune on it) as well as the huge wedding party and planners frantic and uneasy.  Making matters more nervy is Justine's erratic behavior-- calm and pretty one moment, fragile and unhinged the next.  What exactly is the matter-- is it her callous boss (Stellan Skarsgard) whose eager to work during her happy day, or her unstable parents both making a scene-- mom Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is a bitter rattle-rouser, while father Dexter (John Hurt) is a looney womanizer.  Or is it that strange red star on the horizon that appears just as Justine starts to feel paralyzed with depression and unable to situate herself with her loving husband, supportive, but frantic sister or herself for that matter.

The film is broken up into two parts.  The first is titled "Justine" and revolves around her wedding and ultimate undoing.  The second is titled "Claire" and takes place shortly thereafter when a distraught and nearly catatonic Justine comes back to her sister's home as the planet Melancholia inches closer and may impart doom on all.  What's striking about the second act is that Claire is still nervous, utterly paranoid and longingly protective of her husband, unstable sister, and curious son Leo (Cameron Spurr), while Justine is barely alive-- nearly refusing to eat, bathe-- but utterly calm at the same time, as if she's accepted whatever fate comes, while actively being apart of it as well.  Whatever cosmic interplanetary connection von Trier is going for in his characterization of Justine hardly matters, it brings out the best in Dunst, who has never been so assured, arresting nor compelling on screen before. She so deeply digs into a woman overtaken by depression; something only she alone can feel and see.  It's easily her finest performance to date.  All of which contrasts the typical von Trier-ian debate over misogyny; how can a filmmaker who conjures such strong, vivid roles for females be labeled as such.  In fairness, Dunst gets off slightly easier than past von Trier characters, including co-star Gainsbourg last foray with the filmmaker in 2009's Antichrist.  She's positively glowing and filmed with an almost devastating gracefulness (she won the Best Actress prize at this years Cannes Film Festival.)

What strikes in Melancholia is the richness of character detail and history, one that perhaps is only know to von Trier himself.  It matters little why Leo refers to his depressed aunt as Aunt Steelbreaker, or why the two bond over building caves together, nor what happened earlier in the lives of the two sisters that set them off on two strikingly different paths...what matters is that the subtext is there and alive and open to multiple ideas, and shaded with such beautiful imagery that's meticulous but also a tad playful.  The comic beats of Justine's parents acting like fools, or the wedding planner who won't look in her face for ruining his wedding, it's a freer and almost seemingly happier von Trier, despite the gloom and end of days depression that surrounds it.  It's perhaps the softest and most cuddly the filmmaker has every presented.  I rather like it.

There's another component that makes Melancholia a special edition to the von Trier collection, in that it's one of the first to truly use special effects of any kind.  And that kind of cinematic presence coupled with his intense, dogmatic style seems to free him even more a bit.  Dare it be said, but there's this sense of a kid playing in the sandbox in watching the film.  I'd be bullish to say that von Trier has found his inner Spielberg, but there's a joyful refrain in this film, one that's too distinctive to be ignored.  A-

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