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'Melancholia': The title sums it up

Reeling It In

Posted: May 17, 2012 - 9:50am

"Melancholia"
Zentropa Entertainments
2 hours, 16 minutes

After last week's exciting popcorn-rollercoaster adventure superhero extravaganza, I've decided to tone things down a bit. It wasn't exactly my first choice to follow up "The Avengers" with Danish indie sensation Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia," but sometimes life gets in the way. It was Mother's Day weekend, after all, and sneaking off to the movies just didn't seem right. Plus, the offerings on the big screen weren't stellar. Johnny Depp in an odd adaptation of an obscure vampire soap opera or John Cusack in a misguided attempt at turning Edgar Allen Poe into Sherlock Holmes.

Plus, "Melancholia" was a movie I'd been wanting to see, if only for curiosity's sake. Von Trier, known for doing experimental, avant garde, and often grotesque films, had finally tried his hand at science fiction, and I'm always up for smart sci-fi. Smart it is, but it's also a test of will. If you can sit through the film, it's worth it in the end, but be forewarned: the title is not kidding.

The film begins with close to 15 minutes of slo-mo performance art, intercut with scenes of space, finally culminating in the explosive crash of a small planet into a large one -- presumably ours. The opening scenes are of Kirsten Dunst, mostly, beautifully lit and engaged in various activities; struggling against grasping roots in a wedding dress, shooting lightning from her fingertips, being rained on by dead birds, etc. Having no context, these scenes, though very pretty, are fairly confusing. Is this a dream? Is this a flash-forward? Who knows.

When the movie finally begins for real, we are at a wedding reception for Dunst's Justine, a beautiful girl doing her best to hide the fact that she's heavily depressed. And why wouldn't she be? At the party we are introduced to character after character who is either venal, feeble, or just plain mean. She obviously can't stand any of them, and they seem none too thrilled with her. Her new husband is nice enough, but seems a little fragile. Her brother-in-law and sister, who are throwing the party, just seem embarrassed, and Justine's parents, divorcees in their 60s, actually use their wedding toasts to eviscerate each other verbally.

You may be thinking, "Oh, this sounds interesting. Lots of good acting, emotional drama ... I'm in!" Well, you'd be right and wrong. Yes the acting is good, and it's certainly emotional, but everyone is so hateful, it's hard to find a character to latch on to. I couldn't stand anyone. Keifer Sutherland, as the brother-in-law, spends most of his time telling us about how many holes his golf course has, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Claire, the sister, spends much of her dialogue whispering phrases like "I hate you so much." It's rough. And it goes on for over an hour. I just kept wishing for that planet to crash into Earth and put us all out of our misery.

Oh, did I mention that there's a mystery planet on a collision course with Earth? Neither does Lars Von Trier.

It's only in the second hour that things began to pick up. First, the director actually bothers to lay out the plot for us. Apparently, a planet that's been hidden behind the sun all this time, has finally moved into our solar system. Its path through the planets is a narrow one, but most legitimate scientists agree it won't hit the Earth. The second half of the film, taken from Claire's point of view, focuses on two fronts. One, getting Justine back on her feet after a crippling depression, and second, coming to terms with the potential end of the world. Of course, as Justine begins to thrive -- I guess rapidly approaching planet's agree with her -- Claire starts to break down. Sutherland insists everything is hunky dory, but Claire has another issue on her mind. The fate of 5-year-old Leo, her only child, weighs heavily.

I have to say, I very nearly turned "Melancholia" off. The first hour is so unpleasant that I kept looking at the clock, praying for armageddon. The second half is much better, if still pretty melancholy. In some ways, you could even say the last part of the film is redemptive, in a way. I'm glad I waded through the petty, grating, and insufferable party-goers in the first act. The rest of the film puts the unpleasantness into context. Still no fun to watch, but at least it all makes a kind of sense.

If the narrative structure the film is somewhat frustrating, one thing you can't fault Von Trier for is the acting. Excellent performers all give understated, often hushed performances. Dunst is good, but the movie really belongs to Gainsbourg as a desperate mother with no idea how to face the inevitable. Also stellar is the cinematography. The movie is luminous, glossy, and beautifully constructed. Almost every shot is a stand-alone art piece.

This is my only experience with Von Trier, and as much as I was ultimately impressed with the film, I don't know that I'll be exploring the rest of his repertoire. His last film can best be described as a disturbing and depressing sexual horror film called "Antichrist" and next he's announced he wants to try his had at a movie about nymphomania. Perhaps if Von Trier ever decides to explore science fiction again, I'll give it a shot.
Grade: B

"Melancholia" is rated R for language, sexual situations, and nudity.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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