Theatrical Review: Melancholia

“Worlds colliding, Jerry!  Worlds colliding!”

After seeing Lars von Trier’s latest movie, Melancholia, I couldn’t help but think of lines that George Costanza uttered to Jerry Seinfeld (of course in an episode of Seinfeld) when two different aspects of his life that he didn’t want to meet were on a collision course.

von Trier’s Melancholia does a similar thing but with literal repercussions, at least from my perspective.

Melancholia tells us the tale of two sisters who are polar opposites in every respect.  Justine is a  free-spirited career woman who’s blond, attractive and just about to have it all marrying a perfect man, and by her nature, rejects it all.  Claire is  dark-haired, gaunt in appearance and his given her life over to her very successful husband and perfect son, and yearns for Justine’s life.  This is literally set against the backdrop of the discovery of a new planet named Melancholia that’s careening through space, supposedly only going to pass by Earth.

That’s the broad description of Melancholia, a movie that I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time.  Danish director/provocateur Lars von Trier wrote and directed the film which has been receiving great acclaim.  That acclaim has been overshadowed by statements made by von Trier during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival.  Those statements revolved around von Trier expressing some sympathy for Nazis in comparison to what he goes through directing a film.  As a result of those statements, von Trier has since been banned from Cannes and he has actively said that he’ll no longer participate in any sort of press setting.  I’ve seen the video of his making the statements, and from my point of view, it was more of von Trier basically putting his foot in his mouth rather than any sort of real Nazi sympathy.  Anyone who knows von Trier’s work knows that he likes to provoke and push buttons, and that’s all he was doing with this press conference, but at least from my point of view, it was hardly in any sort of malicious way.  Of course, I say this as an American who just doesn’t have the same perspective that the foreign press does, and so naturally, I tend to think this was all unfortunately overblown.

Will this affect how a potential viewer will come into this?  Honestly, I don’t know.  I know it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film at all and I’d just hope that if you’re of the mind to see it, you’ll certainly give it a chance.

As I said above, von Trier like to push the buttons and it’s evident in all of his work.  He certainly does it with Melancholia with his two main characters who I don’t see as necessarily being “characters” per se, but more the personification of different aspects of woman in general.  Their portrayal can be seen as both sensitive and pretentious and that can certainly come at odds for how you’ll feel about them by the end.  I’ve come to embrace the pretentiousness of von Trier’s work simply because he knows how to balance it all with effective technical proficiency and leaves it all open to lively discussion.  Justine and Claire are at first glance, somewhat simplistic metaphors.  But after post-viewing examination, there’s way more there to go after if you’re inclined.  I’ve described how I see them in broad strokes, but as is the case with all of von Trier’s movies, he invites you to bring your pads and cleats to play and make your own interpretation.

It’s an absolutely beautiful looking movie that brings to play all of von Trier’s visual tricks.  Pristine composed shots that work in tandem with intentionally jittery handheld camera moments all designed to provoke and force the viewer to put together the pieces.  von Trier uses excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde to punctuate his scenes and furthers the haunting beauty of his film.

Kirsten Dunst plays Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Claire.  Dunst has certainly received much acclaim for the work, even winning the Best Actress award at Cannes for her work here.  It’s no doubt her most complicated work, though as a character, she comes off very unsympathetic, but as I said above, I couldn’t just see her as a character alone, but more as an aspect/concept given personification.  It’s a very show-y performance in comparison to what Gainsbourg has to do and so for some, Claire might come out more slighted in the end.  But again, as a concept given personification, Claire is certainly true to how she’s set up.  That set-up is quite literally the polar opposite of Justine, and so it would seem fitting that she’s more downplayed.

von Trier has assembled some capable support for Dunst and Gainsbourg, but they’re strictly support to his concepts.  Stellan Skarsgård and Alexander Skarsgård play Justine’s boss and husband-to-be respectively (though they’re not related in the film).  John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling play Justine’s and Claire’s divorced parents who act more as definition to Justine more than anything else.  Keifer Sutherland and Cameron Spurr play Claire’s husband, John and son, Leo and again, act as definition to her concept.  It’s all good work, but as I said above, it’s strictly support for Dunst and Gainsbourg.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again, I’m a huge fan of Lars von Trier and any new movie from him is an event for me.  I found Melancholia to be mesmerizing, though I don’t think it will be that way for most, unless you know what you’re getting into with a Lars von Trier movie.  His movies aren’t passive experiences and require an audience to bring in their own interpretation.  His bleak outlook on life won’t give you a feel-good experience, but will certainly give you plenty to ponder after the fact, as long as you’re willing to take the ride.  Anti-Christ was von Trier’s “horror” film and now with Melancholia we’ve got his science fiction film, though they only fit the genres in the broadest of ways.  von Trier’s films have worked as trilogies and both Anti-Christ and Melancholia look like they’re the first two parts of a new one (I’d love to see what he’d do with his own version of an “action” film- though I’d also like to see him finish the trilogy that he started with Dogville and Manderlay).  Regardless of what he does next, I’ll be there to see it and I certainly do recommend Melancholia very highly.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

27. November 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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