A few art-house films concerned themselves with the cosmic this year, with varying degrees of success. One dealt with the creation (The Tree of Life – right?), another with the end of the world (Melancholia), and one with the possibility of anotherEarth (uhh...Another Earth).
I saw Lars von Trier’s award-winning Melancholia today (thanks, Miami Beach Cinematheque!), and I found it to be enthralling.
Now, I won’t lie to ya: I feel asleep there for a bit in the latter half, but I was completely riveted by this compelling meditation on the demise of our planet, which features a career-high turn by Kirsten Dunst, who picked up the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Von Trier begins his masterful film with a series of mesmerizing tableaux, which, when combined with the soaring and searing beauty of Richard Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde, hint at the gloomy mood of the story that lies ahead.
Dunst plays Justine. We meet her on what is meant to be the happiest day of her life: her wedding day to the noble and handsome Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), who just adores her. They are on their way to the extravagant party her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) are giving them at their country estate, which, in spite of Claire’s best efforts, turns into a bit of a fiasco.
The bride and the groom are hours late arriving at the reception. The sister's father (John Hurt) is there, being a hambone and with two ladies, both of whom he calls Betty, that are less than elegant company. And their bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling) is being a total wet blanket about the whole affair.
Oh, and Justine's ad-exec boss (Stellan Skarsgård) is trying to restlessly wrestle a piece of copy out of her, and has put a young underling (Brady Corbet) on her gown's train so he can be there when she thinks of it. (She ends up sleeping with her on the estate's grounds.)
It’s not the most pleasant of shindigs.
Melancholia is divided into two parts, each named after each sister.
In “Justine” we learn about Justine, obviously...that she's prone to mood swings and that she struggles with a depression that runs deep. We're at her wedding, which is when we, like all the characters, first find out about Melancholia, a blue telluric planet that is just now letting itself be viewed from Earth. (Some people in the audience, including yours truly, theorize that it is a manifestation of Justine's tremendous sadness.) We see Justine go through the motions of this dusk-'til-dawn episode, wavering from one emotion to another. The party concludes with everyone miserable, and with Michael walking out on his fragile wife.
In “Claire,” Justine has fallen into a depression so deep she can barely stand or bathe herself. Much to John's exasperation and impatience, Claire has taken her in. Meanwhile, Melancholia seems to be on a collision course with Earth. Although John and every expert on the planet believe it will just fly by us, Claire is edgy about the whole thing, and becoming more and more convinced the end is near. She begins to unravel, and just as she is coming undone, Justine starts to get better, comforted by this very same feeling. The planet will slingshot back and hit us, and, in a film that, I believe, is all about disconnection, she, the one who was more scattered, becomes most attuned.
I'm pretty sure what I liked the most about Melancholia was how focused and at peace with doom as it was. There's a certain comfort in that. And in the fact that von Trier ends the world in the most naturalistic way I have ever seen on film.
I've never said this in this medium, but...bravo!
My Rating ***1/2
Photo: Magnolia Pictures.