Melancholia (2011)

November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kirsten Dunst in Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia"

Written and Directed by Lars Von Triers

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Rampling, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt, Udo Kier and Kiefer Sutherland

Lars Von Triers is a master of combining the surreal and ethereal with the everyday and conventional. With Melancholia, Van Triers has perfected his unique and singular approach to story telling and genre bending. Melancholia is one-part standard wedding drama, something akin to an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, in which a group of close-knit people with long, torrid social histories between each other congregate in an isolated, wealthy estate for what should be a weekend of celebration, for two of the youngest and most beloved family members, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) have just been married and are arriving for a grand reception. Obviously things aren’t initially as they appear and the precarious social fabric of polite niceties quickly unravels as old rivalries, disagreements and secrets burst forth to the surface. People act out, proverbially stab each other in the back at every turn and the day rather quickly goes to hell. Michael’s father (Stellan Skarsgard) tries to make a business deal out of the nuptials, Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) puts a damper on the events by declaring her rather anarchistic philosophies about the pointlessness of marriage and ceremony, Justine’s sister in law, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) just want things to run smoothly because they are hosting and they’re afraid that their time and money has been wasted on a union that is not as it appears to be, while Justine’s father (John Hurt) hangs out drinking booze and enjoying himself, much to the chagrin of Justine’s mother. In a stroke of genius, the main cast is rounded out by the omnipresent Udo Kier as the party planner, as he weaves in and out of the background, flitting from one little task to the other.

So far it’s a very standard wedding film drama with the type of cast one would expect for such a story and while it’s certainly engaging, thanks in large part to Von Triers’ excellent camera work, lighting, sound design and restraint with his actors, it’s still a farily standard film trope. However, this is Lars Von Triers! No such thing as standard for Von Triers. So of course, this wedding isn’t just a wedding, but a pointless exercise in human existence. A massive planet named Melancholia has been hiding behind the sun for eternity and has now begun a rather swift rotation across earth’s path, putting them on course for a direct collision. Top scientists swear it’ll get really close, look really pretty for a few days and then disappear for enough life cycles to assuage humanities’ greatest fear, but some people aren’t so sure.

Part one of Melancholia is titled Justine, about Kirsten Dunsts’ character grappling with the ramifications of her new marriage to a husband she may not be entirely committed to. Part two is titled Claire, about Justine’s sister, freaking out over the prospect of earth’s complete destruction. As with Justine’s lack of commitment to her husband resulting in a break down of sorts throughout the wedding party, we are now witness to the mental unraveling of Claire, who has no faith in her husband’s friendly assurances that the scientists have convinced him of earth’s survival, that Melancholia will simply pass us by as a visual wonder and nothing more. She can’t be certain that he is correct and not trying to shield her from the horrible, inescapable truth.

Von Triers has crafted something rather brilliant. He’s given us what is ostensibly an art house character piece and fused it in the most logical and subdued way with a standard End of Earth big budget film scenario. Conceptually it’s everything Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles:, Armageddon, Deep Impact and so on are thoroughly not. This film represents human life as it is, which is an anomaly in the universe, our importance being a construct of our mind to assuage the depressing notion that was are a blip on the radar of time, a radar we ourselves invented and maintain the function of, because in a case like the impending impact of Melancholia, it quickly becomes very clear just how insignificant we are.

If Melancholia passes us by, it becomes a world uniting, historical moment that trumps everything mankind has recorded or experienced before it. If Melancholia hits us and we perish instantaneously, engulfed by this other planet, our atmosphere drained, our sunlight quashed, our ozone layer depleted and our land masses destroyed, then we become just another dead planet in a solar system and universe filled with inanimate objects of massive proportion.

Von Triers’ ability to combine the micro of being human with the macro of our infinitesimal impact of the universe is a stroke of brilliance and his willingness to stare the problem in its face without fanciful heroes or any attempt to assuage the fear of not only death but the end of existence is perhaps something that could only be best expressed in the way he did it in Melancholia, to put our lives in perspective, the kind of perspective that renders anything and everything meaningless, offering our final moments a sense of melancholia.


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