Melancholia (2011)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on November 16, 2011 @

At times I'm a believer in Dwight Macdonald's dictum that a reviewer tells what the audience thinks, and a critic tells what he thinks.

Melancholia is a challenge for a critic. It may stymie reviewers. Some viewers will find it tedious and a total waste of time. Others will find it engrossing and rich in symbolism -- a veritable work of art.

What's a poor reviewer to do with an art film? Melancholia may be like when Antonioni's L'Avventura first came out in 1960. Who is its target audience?

I wouldn't recommend Melancholia to any of my acquaintances at the doughnut shop, but I think all my fellow members of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society have to see it. That is not to say some members of the Society might not prefer a doughnut.

But some, like me, might find it entrancing.

One possible inducement for an audience is that Melancholia has Spider-Man's girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst), and it also has the star of TV's 24 (Keifer Sutherland).

But this time Dunst's character (Justine) is not literally hanging upside down; she's upside down psychologically -- upside down and sideways.

And Sutherland's character (Justine's wealthy brother-in-law John) is not a man of action and bravery. His rashness is throwing a suitcase outside. Although he insists he is knowledgeable about science, he doesn't know Jack.

Melancholia was written and directed by Dane Lars von Trier, and it is probably his most accessible film. That is not to say audiences will be willing to accept his access.

Melancholia begins with the surreal image of Justine (Dunst) motionlessly staring forward as birds slowly fall to the earth behind her. A horse sinks to the ground. These images announce the inevitability of death. Justine's expression is human and empty.

Welcome to the world of Lars von Trier.

Melancholia is divided into two sections. The first is titled Justine, and the second is titled Claire. Claire is Justine's sister.

As the first section begins we see Justine in her white wedding dress sitting beside her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and laughing in the back seat of a white limo which is trying unsuccessfully to navigate a road. They kiss playfully and smile. They're aware their driver can't handle the difficult road. He is replaced by Michael, and then by Justine [one of many dualities].

Finally the "happy" couple arrive two hours late for their lavish wedding reception at an estate with a golf course. They are greeted by Justine's anxious sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who arranged the soire and her husband John (Sutherland), who keeps emphasizing the vasts amounts of money he spent on it. At one point he calls it "the most expensive wedding on the planet." He thinks money will make Justine happy.

Although extremely expensive, the reception is not extraordinary. It's another traditional ritual that seems fallible, mundane, and at times socially inept. And the bride keeps disappearing.

Guests go through the motions -- toasting and dancing, but much of the time Justine is absent. She makes an effort to look happy, but it's a pose.

Her cynical and bitter mother tells Justine to "run away." "I don't believe in marriage," she announces coldly at the wedding reception dinner. The mother is played by Charlotte Rampling, once lovely, who has let herself look ravaged for this role.

Justine's father (John Hurt) plays the fool. He, too, vanishes.

Near the end of part one, Justine destroys her marriage.

Kirsten Dunst -- who was a victim of clinical depression herself -- gives a remarkable, memorable, brave performance as Justine, who faces life and death with a Pandora's box of moods.

Justine struggles with the pettiness and nothingness in the world around her -- and in herself. Her demons shake her soul. She tries to play the social game, but can't sustain it. Human weakness -- her own and that of others -- throttles her.

But she's a fighter. Lars von Trier gives Justine two great, withering speeches -- when she assaults her arrogant boss (Stellan Skarsgard), and when she verbally destroys her sister's plans for a cliched ritual. Dunst gives these two speeches powerful vitality.

Dunst beautifully embodies von Trier's acrid, human vision. Her performance is transcendent.

In the second section, titled Claire, Justine faces real crisis. She exhibits human comprehension and fortitude.

A planet named Melancholia is on a collision course with earth. Maybe it will be a "Flyby." The characters have varied responses. John trusts the scientists, but Claire panics. Justine waits and watches.

Claire cries, "I hate that stupid planet."

John responds, "That stupid planet. That wonderful planet, you mean."

Claire later looks at the looming planet through a telescope and says, "It looks friendly."

Her husband says, "That's what I've been trying to explain to you." And he cryptically adds, "my god."

Earlier he has told her, "Sweetheart, you have to trust a scientist."

Von Trier is not kind to optimists. In the world of von Trier, you can't trust anyone. Everyone deceives or miscalculates. "Happiness" is just a word.

Melancholia is steeped in anxiety and alienation.

Justine says, "The earth is evil. We don't have to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it." She adds, "When I say we're alone, we're alone."

Life is a game -- a golf course is a place of flight and sex. But what happens when you reach the "19th" hole?

We can build structures -- "caves," tepees, churches -- to protect us.

The planet Melancholia is like the whale in Moby Dick -- it's open to various interpretations. Is it death or god or nature? Characters face impending doom in different ways: surrender, fear, panic, or acceptance.

One of the riches of the film is von Trier's use of dualities. Melancholia abounds with them. They're contrasting sides, shifting values, colliding entities.

The film is divided into two parts. There are two planets, two sisters, two horse rides, two cars that won't start in the rain, a mother and son, a mother and daughter, two sexual encounters -- one consummated, one not. A pill bottle -- empty or not. A plate thrown twice, the second time shattered.

Melancholia does not offer pleasant dreams.

For those of us that ponder our nightmares, Melancholia is a dazzling experience.

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