Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: "Melancholia" and the Infinite Sadness

"Life is only on Earth. And not for long."

Lars von Trier is not an "in-between" director. You will either end up loving his films, or hating them to death. No one has ever finished a Lars von Trier film and said "Hmm, that was okay." You either say "Wow! That was something special!" or "Holy fucking SHIT, what a piece of SHIT film. If I ever meet that guy on the street, I will punch him the throat and then step on BOTH of his feet."

His previous film, "Anti-Christ", is a perfect example of this. If you haven't seen it, I'll sum it up briefly: It's fucking batshit insane. 

Okay, I guess there's more to it than that. But I won't go too much into that film. All you need to know is one of the very first shots of the film involves an extreme close up of a penis penetrating a vagina in a shower, and one of the last scenes of the film involves an extreme close up of a woman performing genital mutilation on herself. Right now you might be saying "Oh my god, I will never see that movie." 

Fair enough. But don't let that scare you away from "Melancholia", von Trier's latest opus to misery. 

After "Anti-Christ", I was expecting this film to be FAR more crazy and extreme. It wasn't. In fact, by von Trier standards, this movie is actually pretty tame. Well, tame for him at least--since it is about the literal end of the world.

And, as you can probably guess from the title, it is also about depression. 

I myself suffer from depression, and I can honestly say this film contains probably the most accurate portrayals of the infliction I've ever seen. 

Depression is hard to pin-down. If you try to explain it to someone who has--miraculously--never really suffered from it, they don't quite grasp it.

"Well, cheer up!" they might say. "Things aren't THAT bad!"

That's not the kind of depression we're talking about here. This isn't the type of depression you get when you lose your car keys, or your favorite sports team loses, or your burn the meatloaf. This is the type of depression that creeps up on you, slowly, like a thief in the night. It comes from no where. And it can be brought on by nothing. 

There doesn't have to be a trigger; no underlying, horrible even to set you off. One minute you are perfectly fine, and then the next minute, you feel as if the very sky itself is pressing down on the top of your head, and the simple act of moving your body is near impossible.

Von Trier understands this--he suffers from depression himself--and that is why he is so successful at capturing the malady. 

The depression in "Melancholia" presents itself in the character of Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. I've never been a big fan of Ms. Dunst; she always strikes me as if she's, well, "acting." She always seems in on the fact that she is playing a character, and she seems even smug about it. 

None of that happens here. This is, without a doubt, her finest performance to date. Yes, even better than "Bring it On" and "Small Soldiers"...ahem...

The first half of the film involves Justine's wedding day to Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard, who I am told is on the show "True Blood", or as I like to call it, "Porn for Women."

The wedding is nothing short of extravagant, being held at a huge mansion that belongs to Justine's sister Claire (the always fantastic Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland). 

By all accounts, this should be one of the happiest days of Justine's life. And when we first meet her, it really does seem as if she is having a wonderful time; and she really does seem to love Michael.

All that slowly changes. Justine notices a red light high up in the sky before entering the wedding party, and begins to fall apart. Her mother Gaby (played with delicious spitefulness by Charlotte Rampling) is clearly not happy to be there, and gives a mean, devastating toast.  Her father (the seemingly constantly drunk John Hurt) seems oblivious, and apparently has three girlfriends.  Claire tries desperately to keep the wedding running smoothly (along with the wedding planner, played by Udo Kier in a scene-stelling, brief role). 

But Justine is disintegrating before our eyes. She loses all interest in the wedding, and, before the night is over, she loses all interest in her new husband--who leaves with his parents, seemingly ending the marriage just as it began.

This part of the film is all set up. It's introducing us to the characters (most of whom aren't even in the rest of the movie), and it's showing us just what kind of person Justine is. At a casual glance, one could make the assumption that she is just a total bitch. Maybe on some level that is true, but there is more beneath the surface. There is an underlining, uncontrollable sadness that she tries--unsuccessfully--to stave off. 

The second half of the film focuses more on Gainsbourg's Claire, and this is the real meat of the story.

We learn that a planet named Melancholia (who the hell would name a planet that?) has been discovered, and is heading on a possible collision course with Earth. 

Claire is very worried, but her husband John and her son Leo seem thrilled. John assures Claire that Melancholia will NOT hit Earth; it'll fly by, and all will be well.

Along with the danger of the arrival of Melancholia comes the danger of the arrival of Justine, who comes to live with Claire and John. The first few days she's there, she is near catatonic. Her depression has overwhelmed her so much that she can't even get out of bed, and when Claire tries to give her a bath, she collapses on the floor, sobbing.

The closer Melancholia gets, however, the more lively Justine becomes. 

In one particularly eerie scene, Claire catches Justine laying nude in the woods, bathing in the spooky blue light of Melancholia as it approaches.

Immanent doom is all but certain. Justine is positive that Melancholia WILL hit Earth, and she's perfectly fine with that.

Eventually the story whittles the characters down to Justine, Claire and Claire's son Leo, the three of them representing three different viewpoints of impending doom.

Claire represents the fearful viewpoint; Justine represents acceptance; and the boy Leo represents a sort of blind faith that no matter what, everything is going to be okay. The last shot of the film involves these three characters sitting in a circle--Claire sobbing, Justine calm, and Leo with his eyes closed, smiling and feeling secure.

This is not a movie for everyone. As you can tell from the title alone, this isn't the feel-good movie of the year.

But "Melancholia"--like the planet that bares its namesake--is hauntingly beautiful. It's one of von Trier's most accessible works--despite it's slow-pace and doom and gloom subject matter. The performances are beyond stellar. As mentioned before, Dunst does her finest work ever here. Charlotte Gainsbourg is always good, so it's no surprise that she's fantastic as Claire; she is essentially the most "feeling" character in the whole film. Kiefer Sutherland is very good too; it's nice to see him play this kind of role for a change, and prove that he is still a pretty good actor, even when he's not roaming the night with his gang of 80's teen vampires.

You will not leave the theater feeling happy, but you will leave the theater feeling SOMETHING. And for people with depression, feeling something--ANYTHING; good OR bad--is sometimes better than nothing at all.

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