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Haunting ‘Melancholia’ probes depression, apocalypse

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

November 18, 2011

“Melancholia,” the latest film by Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier, begins with the end: Melancholia, a rogue planet that has been hiding behind the sun for millennia, collides with Earth, instantaneously destroying all life on our planet. Immediately before this happens, we’re shown dream-like images of life in its last flourishes—a bride floats down a green, fecund river, while a mother runs with her child, getting nowhere; all of this is set to the prelude of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

Wagner’s music recurs throughout the film, which is more interested in the dynamics between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), than it is in the nitty-gritty details of the apocalypse. The film is appropriately split into two sections, each taking its name from one of the sisters.

“Justine” focuses on the wedding reception for Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), held at the opulent estate belonging to Claire and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine initially appears happy, but that quickly changes as she becomes increasingly distant. As it turns out, spiritual horrors surround her: Her divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) are so self-involved that they use their wedding toasts to insult one another, while her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) hounds her in the hopes that she can supply a new tagline for his ad campaign—this despite it being her wedding night. Michael tries to comfort Justine but their relationship proves too shallow; Claire, meanwhile, berates her for all the trouble she’s causing (“Sometimes I hate you so much”). On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad, but these details portend something much worse—absolute corruption wrought by narcissism and unadulterated capitalist greed.

In contrast, “Claire” is a more intimate, sparsely populated act. Justine, badly in need of spiritual detox, returns to Claire’s estate just as the news of Melancholia’s approach arrives. Claire is immediately consumed by concerns about the planet’s trajectory—what will become of her and her young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr)? Justine, on the other hand, is now the more stable one—she’s completely at peace with Earth’s fate and refuses to comfort Claire. “Life is only on Earth, and not for long,” she tells her sister.

Melancholia, with a capital M, is a metaphor for melancholia of the lower-case variety. This big, looming metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s certainly creative and effective. Like the planet, melancholia comes out of nowhere, looming over life and refusing to disappear. A rarefied few, like Justine, eventually revel in it—at one point, she basks naked in the planet’s blue glow.

Von Trier based the film on his own battles with depression, which almost crippled him during the production of his last film, 2009’s ultra-disturbing “Antichrist.” “Melancholia” certainly conveys its central emotion very well, but to focus solely on the film’s ruminations on depression is to miss out on just how funny it can be at times, particularly in the first half. Justine’s wedding planner (Udo Kier) literally shields his face every time he’s near her, angry that she has ruined his perfect wedding. When Justine later returns to the manse barely able to move due to her depression, Claire makes her meatloaf, believing it to be the ultimate cure-all for depression. (Justine indeed lights up when she sees her favorite dish but then declares it “tastes like ashes”—hilarious!)

For someone who seems to agree with Justine that “the Earth is evil,” Von Trier presents both the natural and the man-made in their best light with the help of cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, who ensures that the film is always beautiful. Its images are glossy like a wedding invitation, absolutely natural while somehow simultaneously reveling in its own artifice.

Von Trier has a history of eliciting strong performances from the likes of Emily Watson, Björk and Nicole Kidman, and his stars here are no different. At her best, Kirsten Dunst is one of the best actresses of her generation—look no further than her collaborations with Sofia Coppola for proof of that. She’s been largely absent from the screen these last five years, but this is quite the comeback for her. Justine is one of her most mature, fully-realized creations, confident in her despair.

Gainsbourg also puts in an excellent performance, one markedly different from Dunst’s. In the first half, she betrays little about Claire save her priggishness, but she later shines, reconciling Claire’s usually reserved facade with the absolute agony of assured destruction.

The remainder of the cast is uniformly excellent. For those only familiar with Sutherland via the now defunct “24,” his performance here is surprising in its depth. Unsurprising is the mileage Hurt and Rampling get out of their small parts.

The one aspect hampering the film is its tempo. Both halves last roughly an hour. The first is well-paced. Though it takes place entirely on one night, the bulk of the movie’s characterization is established here. The second half has its excellent moments—most notably its absolutely riveting, beautiful conclusion—but it lags at times. There’s only so many ways you can be shown how Claire copes—or can’t cope—with impending death.

“Melancholia” may be labeled bombastic by some, but it’s well-executed, beautiful bombast with vital, dark thoughts backing it up. Watching it can, at times, be a depressing experience but it’s well worth a watch.

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