Today: April 15, 2024
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Melancholia

Though the idiotic remarks made by the director of Melancholia, Lars von Trier, at Cannes earlier last year still casts an unfortunate shadow over this film, there is an undeniable genius about some of his work here.

Though the idiotic
remarks made by the director of Melancholia, Lars von Trier, at Cannes earlier
last year still casts an unfortunate shadow over this film, there is an
undeniable genius about some of his work here.
Melancholia is neither a
perfect film, nor, always a conventionally enjoyable one, but it is perhaps von
Trier’s most emotionally involving project to date. Melancholia is also an
ambitious film that uses space and impending disaster as a metaphor for depression.
Hence the title. von Trier is perhaps all too often preoccupied with playing
the provocateur and messing with the audience – his films certainly suffer when
he is over indulgent. But in Melancholia he has stumbled on a much more
personal and stripped down drama that is devoid of his famed histrionics. This
is not only a rarity in his work, but is also a refreshing sight, as von Trier
has sadly become a filmmaker who is far too famous for what he says in public,
rather than someone who is, despite the vitriol, a unique visionary.

There are still of course all the usual von Trier-isms in
Melancholia; perverse humour, visual motifs, sexual angst and exploration, and
a typically morbid tone, yet here he seems in control. Never is there the sense
that von Trier is allowing his own playfulness run away from him and let it be
at the detriment of the film. This is von Trier the ‘storyteller’ as opposed to
von Trier the ‘prankster’.

In structure Melancholia is forethought where at the very
beginning we are introduced to the very end, quite literally. This isn’t a
spoiler as such, as the story pertains the events of what happens in the lead
up to how the film both begins and concludes. Included in this build up is two
central story lines – both of which are split into two part chapters – of two
sisters and the after effects of a lavish, yet disastrous, wedding reception.
When Justine – played by Kirsten Dunst
in a true return to form – turns up late to her own garish wedding reception,
neither are the guests or her wealthy sister Claire – played by von Trier
stable Charlotte Gainsbourg – very
pleased.

Almost as soon as Justine arrives, she becomes burdened by
the weight of a foreign presence. No one has yet felt it, but Justine is
immediately aware of something. Her mood rapidly changes and as the family’s
dirty laundry is hung out for all to see by her estranged mother and father – fireworks
crack between legends Charlotte Rampling
and John Hurt – Claire is alert to
her sister’s slip. Thus begins a routine of Claire’s due care and attention for
Justine and her depression. At times she is frustrated as Justine’s carer but
something tells you she’s been here before as she voices her inner turmoil. “I
love you Justine, but sometimes I really hate you”. Finally von Trier has
delivered something of genuine sadness and compassion.

Justine’s debilitating depression is related somewhat astonishingly
to the passing of a gigantic blue planet named Melancholia, which has been
hiding behind the Sun. As others are transfixed by its arrival, Claire’s
husband John is obsessed in its science, others are anxious to its presence.
Particularly Claire who, compared to the ambivalent Justine, is positively
neurotic. Justine’s depression only allows her to see the worst, though the
point of Melancholia seems to be in the proponent that there is only disaster
and that you should indeed expect the worst. Justine is also in some shape a
magnetic beacon for this nearing planet and while others are either deluded to,
or ignore, its danger, Justine is engulfed, yet almost at peace with her impending
demise.

Melancholia can be summarised by a brilliant line delivered
by a mightily impressive Kiefer
Sutherland
whose curt approach to Justine’s family dynamic is one of
pragmatic disbelief. “Is there anyone in your family who isn’t stark raving
mad?”. In all Melancholia is about the madness in everyone, and that there is
an inevitability to life. Depressing, yes. But at the same time hauntingly
profound.

Melancholia is at its visual best when von Trier cranks up
the operatic sequences and calmly pans across the vast Marienbad-esque estate
that he chooses as his canvas. Discourse between the characters, however, is
exclusively shot in a hand held manner and for a film over two hours this can
become somewhat irksome. Yet, some of the spats and broiling tensions that von
Trier has constructed between this marvellous cast is more than a saving grace,
a revelation in fact. von Trier really has focused in on his characters and
bled every last emotion he can from them without being overly matter of fact.
Melancholia is a von Trier film that finally has some well-rounded characters
and as a consequence we invest ourselves in their stories.

In the hands of another director, Melancholia would have
been a sci-fi disaster movie. But von Trier brings his own touches of
perversity and visual brilliance to make Melancholia his most compelling and
haunting film to date.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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