Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: Melancholia

Non Spoiler Review:
I walked into Lars Von Trier's Melancholia with memories of his other edgier film, Antichriststill fresh in my mind, so wasn't sure what to expect, despite a very beautiful and intriguing trailer. The opening few minutes lazily depicts the destruction of the Earth in all the stunning and elaborate style Trier is famous for. With that out of the way, the story gets into the nitty-gritty of the characters, focusing on sisters Justine and Claire in the days leading up to the apocalypse.

In the film's first chapter, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in probably one of her best performances) is getting an elaborate wedding courtesy of her brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) at his fancy resort. Everything looks perfect and the couple (including groom Alexander Skarsgard—Eric from True Blood) appear the perfect couple. Very quickly the wedding festivities, and Justine, display cracks, and finally some really awful cringe-inducing moments that make it apparent things with Justine are not as they seem. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the enduring sister trying to make things perfect, and be there to pick up the pieces for Justine whenever she needs it. She has a stable life with her ever impatient husband (Sutherland) and their son on their lush resort. She gets the focus of the final half.

Set behind this family dynamic and the aftermath of the wedding is the discovery of a rogue planet (the eponymous Melancholia) that is making a flyby of the Earth. There is just the barest hint of it during Justine's story, but by the time it's Claire's turn, Melancholia becomes increasingly prominent (and ominous) in the sky. As Justine's emotional state begins to crystallize, it's Claire who grows paranoid it will hit, despite that her husband (and amateur scientist) assures her it will not. 

The film is a novel exploration of depression, striking a parallel with the aptly named planet that is a constant reminder in nearly every scene. I found myself gripped by the drama pretty quickly after sitting through the horrible wedding and its subsequent fallout. It is certainly much tamer than Antichrist (barely a flash of naked breasts and not a bit of genital mutilation this time around).

I've read criticisms of Dunst's performance, but I found it to be quite powerful. She was both sympathetic at times and horrible to look at, eliciting empathy for her suffering sister who has to deal with her manic states. Gainsbourg managed to cleanse my palette of her scissor shenanigans in Antichrist, and I really enjoyed her here, as well. As the stable sister, she convincingly portrays a woman who realizes her happy life is abruptly going to end, and struggles to cope with the enormity of their situation.

While the female characters get the focus, the men range from inept to impotent, and fall by the wayside by the end. Visually, Trier excels with his slow motion vistas and vibrantly coloured landscapes, this time including the beautiful and terrifying orb of Melancholia as it grows ever closer in the sky. The opening sequence is subtle and graceful, set to a powerful and memorable score.

As far as an apocalyptic movie, Melancholia treats its subject matter on an intimate level rather than the blockbuster style we're accustomed to, set entirely on the grounds of the resort and with little indication of what's going on in the outside world. If you've seen Don McKellar's Last Night (1998), it shares a similar tone in how it treats the end of the world—character over spectacle.

Showing the Earth's destruction at the beginning is to the movie's benefit as that removes the anticipation of whether the rogue planet will actually hit, and focus all the more on the characters struggling with it. Given the contrasting attitudes of the sisters, it does make one ponder how you would treat your final days if the end of the world was imminent.

Melancholia more than lived up to my expectations from what I could glean from the trailer, so I really have no major criticisms. I would recommend it for anyone familiar with Trier's work, or who might be looking for a thoughtful exploration of depression salted with some neat science fiction elements. 

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