Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: Melancholia

Fade in. The gold and ice beauty of Kirsten Dunst. Her gaze is resigned. Objects fall through the unfocussed light behind her. They are birds plummeting to earth. Charlotte Gainsbourg carries a child and runs across a golf course, her feet sinking into the damp turf and leaving dark holes behind her. A black horse struggles to stand but collapses. A huge blue planet moves into earth like two movie stars' heads coming together for a screen kiss. The world is ending. This is how Melancholia begins.

The opening sequence seemed absurdly long until it dawned that I was watching an overture. I was listening to one, as well. The gigantic plaintive musical theme that I couldn't quite place was revealed with a little googling to be the overture from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Then, after we see the fate of everyone we are about to see in the film we get a chapter title with the name Justine.

And then we have comedy. An extreme high shot of a narrow winding country lane. Into this small scaled nature moves a huge white stretch limo that is not going to make it from the bottom of the frame to the top without a lot of trouble. Inside the car are newlyweds Justine and Mike (Kirsten Dunst and Aleksander Skarsgard, the Viggo Mortensen you have when you can't have Viggo, also known as Eric the Viking Vampire from True Blood). Both of them have fun trying to get the monster car through the tiny lane. When they finally get to the reception at the mansion owned by Justine's bro-in-law they are met by a frowning sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who reminds them that they are two hours late and the reception is now all but ruined.

The reception has cost Claire's husband John (Keifer Sutherland) so much money he never names the sum but continually introduces the topic into conversation. Justine's father (John Hurt) is a happy drunk whose sad resignation to his life's failure gives him a shambling dignity. His ex and Justine's mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is an arid and bitter woman who is bursting to let everyone know what she thinks of marriage. Justine's boss (Stellan Skarsgard, Aleksander's father: not relevant but we're going through family relations so what the hell?) is still at work in his wedding tuxedo sending his bug eyed nephew after Justine to get a tag line for an ad.

Etc etc ... A complex sprawling told in more or less real time with use of shaky cam digital video. Sounds like blergh? Maybe but it proves compelling. The mass of inter-relations and microplotting that give this chapter its Pieter Breughel the Elder earthy grandeur is all backdrop, though. This isn't Festen nor is it attempting to be. At the centre of this happily chaotic celebration there lurks a dark spirit. Justine proceeds to alienate everyone present (everyone!). It takes her a while but she goes about it patiently and certainly. By the end she is alone.

Chapter 2 is Claire. Charlotte Gainsbourg talks to her husband Kiefer Sutherland about her fear that the big blue planet Melancholia is about to fly by the earth will really collide with it, rendering everything they are and know to space dust. He tries to reassure her that that won't happen and as an amateur astonomer is keenly looking forward to the event. In these doubting days the family takes delivery of Claire's half sister Justine who is so deeply into her affliction that she has to be coaxed to lift her foot to step into the bathtub. As Claire forages in every human corner for hope, Justine, in chilling resignation, tells her that there is no justifiable hope and that they must give up to the inevitable end of days.

There are directors who never seem to go out of fashion and whose whole body of work is labelled good in polite society. The Coens are in this group. There are others whose work features an exception either way. People who loathe David Lynch will usually give him Blue Velvet or Muholland Drive. And there are director's whose place at the top of conversants' admiration has long been cold and vacant, regardless of their output since. Lars von Trier lives here.

He has been generally out of favour since Breaking the Waves back in the mid 90s. And then there was Dogme 95 which kept him there. And then there was a series of foot in mouth gaffes at press conferences that had him virtually put a "kick me" sign on his own back. The most recent one of these was his rambling admiration for Hitler's architect Albert Speer which turned both weird and sour as Kirsten Dunst beside him quite visibly wished she was somewhere else (Youtube it!).

For me, I take von Triers' films one at a time. I don't hate any outright but some I don't care much about. What I do like is his steady hand at melodrama (see also Almodovar for this as a redeeming feature) his ease with experimentation and the warm and deep results of his direction of actors. I took some pains above to list some of the cast because it's a splendid one and unusual for such roll calls, not one is wasted nor allowed to phone it in.

I've enjoyed Kirsten Dunst as a screen presence since the Interview with the Vampire way back when and have found that she drives even indifferent vehicles well (Mona Lisa Smile). Along with the Gyllenhall siblings she is among the most compelling of her screen generation, lifting whole films with little effort. Even though she is in such fine company here and the playing is more ensemble than individual, her performance centres the whole two hours twenty minutes.

That is important to this film because, although it has been dismissively called Festen meets Armageddon, Melancholia is neither social realism nor sci fi. All told this film is not about a wedding gone wrong nor an interplanetary disaster it is about depression. The grinding black defeat of depression is present in every frame and its host is Kirsten Dunst's performance. Whether facing off the lens in the first shot with an unblinking gaze of certainty, swaying drunkenly by herself in the golden-hued crowd at the reception, chugging a great quantity of cognac straight from a bottle of Hennessy XO, suddenly crying into her favourite food at the dinner table or quietly preparing her sister and nephew for the end of the world, Dunst holds us with her glacial precision. There is no warmth in this embrace but we don't want to disengage, so powerful, so pitiable, so pure. This is a fable of depression and has at its heart the kind of simple message that all fables must carry. In this case a single word will do: Cope!

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