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Dustin Putman

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Melancholia  (2011)
3 Stars
Directed by Lars von Trier.
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier, Jesper Christensen.
2011 – 136 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 17, 2011.
If 2009's "Antichrist" was writer-director-auteur Lars von Trier's brazenly despairing answer to tackling his own rarefied, anarchic vision of a horror film, then "Melancholia" is his grandiose, equally unconventional take on an end-of-the-world disaster movie. It is certainly not what one would call a sunny or straightforward entertainment, but the extra effort pays off in big ways as von Trier brings a provocative, startling, semi-pessimistic, ultimately logic-driven view to the apocalypse that has none of the flowery, reassuring spiritualism of 2011's "The Tree of Life." If Terrence Malick envisioned death as simply a gateway to another plane of existence where the deceased can once again reunite with their loved ones, von Trier sees it as the finite end, a cutting of the chord that leads to pure nothingness. This atheistic perspective is both indescribably horrifying and oddly reassuring—a fear that many have because it is difficult to comprehend not existing, but also calming if for no reason other than the knowledge that every living being that has come and gone before us has been through the exact same thing.

The adult sisters at the center of "Melancholia," Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the elder Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), have distinctly different reactions as the end draws near, both of them coping in their own way to find solace as they—and the world around them—embark upon their final gasps of breath. Feeling uneasy at first before it has been announced what is going on, the clinically depressed Justine finally embraces her own destruction, a sense of calm rushing over her as her life—a life that has always confused her and left her feeling empty—suddenly comes into focus. For the more practical Claire, she desperately holds on to hope that the planet Melancholia, recently discovered hiding on the other side of the sun, will miss the Earth's atmosphere even as it barrels toward it. Poring over web sites full of alarming scientific predictions, she and her very sanity rely on wealthy naysayer husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) to tell her they'll be safe, that the approaching Melancholia will simply be a "fly-by." If only the reality were that simple. Long harboring psychic tendencies, Justine harshly and adamantly tells Claire that the only life in the universe is right here where they are now. Once obliterated, it will be the end of everything. Claire has no means of processing such a thought. If all that they are staring at is an inevitable black void, then what about her young son Leo (Cameron Spurr)? He's hardly had a chance to live at all.

Cut into two halves (Part I: Justine and Part II: Claire) and set exclusively on the voluminous property of John's family estate, "Melancholia" opens with stunning slow-motion tableaus depicting the final moments of existence, images both horrific and darkly picturesque. By the conclusion, some of them may come true while others prove to merely be harbingers of doom within Justine's mind. The most unexpectedly devastating is that of debris falling around Pieter the Elder Bruegel's famed 1565 oil painting "The Hunters in the Snow (Winter)," a eulogistic hymn to the demise of not only life, but also art and free expression. Following this hypnotic prologue, writer-director Lars von Trier deceptively turns to more hopeful times—at least on the surface. It's Justine's wedding day to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and as the many guests gather on the property (complete with eighteen holes of golf in the backyard) for the reception, the newly betrothed couple kiss and put on smiles. Michael's is genuine. Justine's is not. Struggling to hold it together as she walks through one arbitrary ritualistic custom after the next (i.e., the first dance; the speeches; the cutting of the cake; the tossing of the bouquet), she keeps sneaking away from the festivities to gather her thoughts. She senses something awful is coming, but can't quite understand what these vague premonitions mean yet. Adding to Justine's stress is a bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling) who keeps making a spectacle of herself and her aversion to marriage; a father (John Hurt) too busy with the two women he's brought along to pay much attention to his daughter's need to talk to him; a snooty wedding planner (Udo Kier) holding a grudge over things not going his way; and an opportunistic boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), who has just promoted Justine to art director at the advertising firm where they work, his wet-behind-the-ears minion Tim (Brady Corbet) instructed to follow her around until she gives him the new tagline for their latest campaign. Irate over Justine's flippancy, John makes it very clear to his sister-in-law that he paid a lot of money to make her "perfect day" happen, and she'd better damn well enjoy it.

With a first hour that plays like 1998's "The Celebration" crossed with 2008's "Rachel Getting Married," the film fascinatingly follows Justine around for much of the time without spelling out what it is that is wrong with her. One can definitely sympathize with the stresses that keep bombarding her—her mother, especially, is a real piece of work, almost daring Justine to throw down—but not with the emotional distance she affords her new husband. Denying Michael sex in a closed room away from the reception, Justine wastes no time in ravaging Tim moments later out on the lawn. He doesn't know what hit him. Meanwhile, her decision to tell Jack what a loathsome person he is comfortably puts an end to her job. While Melancholia has not been announced in the press, Justine is well on her way to botching her life with or without another planet hurtling towards her. Deep inside, she already knows her fate, accepts it, and has become a better—or at least more honest—person because of it.

In picking things up roughly a few weeks later at the same manor, much has changed. Not only is Melancholia a known entity, but it can be clearly seen in the sky, a beautiful baby-blue cataclysm edging closer with each new dawn. With nowhere to hide and nothing to do but just wait, Justine, Claire, John and little Leo are rendered helpless to their grim destinies. Is it really that much different than anyone else's, though? Kirsten Dunst (2010's "All Good Things"), who won the Best Actress prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, is a revelation. She's always been good, but never before has so much been asked of her. Dunst is brave to lay her character's difficult, exposing, baffling, frequently alienating emotions out there for the world to see—a late scene where Justine gives Claire a harshly honest, some might say cruel, assessment of herself is countered with an empathetic, heartrendingly selfless gesture she extends to her loving nephew—and the well-earned result is a performance nothing short of extraordinarily measured.

Returning to work with von Trier following her unforgettably raw turn in "Antichrist," Charlotte Gainsbourg (2006's "The Science of Sleep") is physically less bare here, but no less astonishing. Claire is very different from her sister—with a French accent like her mother versus Justine's American speak, might they have grown up apart?—but the deep-seated bond between them, at once tempestuous and simpatico, is in prime evidence. If Justine is a mentally weak young woman barely holding on at the start, she gains clarity and a backbone in light of the catastrophic events about to occur. Claire is the opposite, self-assured at the start and knowing what she wants before all her plans for the future are suddenly pulled out from under her. Gainsbourg impeccably handles these complex demands, her work Dunst's equal in intimacy and unaffected authenticity.

Awesome special effects emulating the terrifying splendor of the end of days collide with the more important story in "Melancholia," an austere portrait of the varying reactions and outlooks that people are apt to experience as they stare death irrefutably in the face. Harrowing in all its facets and achieved intentions, director Lars von Trier's decision to place music over the critical last scene is his first and last notable misstep. By this point, the cumulative emotions were high enough that it didn't need any artifice getting in the way of its pure impact. The characters aren't listening to music at this moment—in fact, a point is made in the preceding scene deriding Claire's suggestion that they put on some classical—and since the audience is intended to be in their shoes here, it naturally goes that there shouldn't be any heard. This quibble aside, "Melancholia" is visually splendid and dramatically rapturous, the cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro marrying a handheld cinema vérité style with the alternating majestic sweep of an epic. It is Justine and Claire that shall be best remembered, though, the two of them emphatically painted as they seek their own personal closure in the bleakest of circumstances. "The Earth is evil," Justine flatly declares in one poignant scene. "We don't have to grieve for it. Nobody would miss it." If the world really was no more, then there wouldn't be anyone around to mourn its loss. Such a thought is inconceivable. What Justine overlooks is that the cosmic forces they have no control over will never be able to shake the goodness in humanity that exists as long as the planet does. The simple, powerful image of hands being held at the end more than proves this. Even in a flash of such unimaginable loss, in their last defense, they've won.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman