DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2011 - Melancholia

Saturday 10 September 2011

TIFF 2011 - Melancholia

Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier


By Greg Klymkiw

Every year I gain more life experience and creep closer to death. The thing I love almost as much as my family, my friends and my very mortality – movies – will occasionally yield the work of artists I enjoy growing with as I advance towards bodily putrification and (I hope) spiritual transcendence.

Lars von Trier has been, for me, one of those artists. My relationship with him has been complicated. His early work drove me up a wall, but with each new film, as he's grown, I have, in turn, found myself more and more drawn to his vision.

His new movie, Melancholia, is deeply moving.

It is a tale of two sisters – Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) – privileged beyond belief, yet facing many of the same demons and challenges we all must confront.

Respectively, one is ethereal, the other pragmatic.

Together they face the ultimate destruction.

Last year, von Trier redefined the horror genre in his own image with the stunning Antichrist. With Melancholia, he seeks to do the same with science fiction.

In its own strange, gentle fashion the picture succeeds admirably.

Melancholia is, one one hand, an extension of Thomas Vinterberg’s handheld examination of a bitter family sniping in a country home in the 1998 masterpiece of the dogme movement The Celebration (AKA Festen).

Blend that, then, with a poetic Kubrick-like rumination on the universe (similar but less New-Agey than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life) and an end of the world saga (think a kinder, gentler, deeper Deep Impact) and you have a picture guaranteed its place in the pantheon of the greats.

From the beginning we’re plunged into a blend of surrealism, expressionism and German Romanticism as Richard Wagner’s soaring Tristan and Isolde Overture wells up on the soundtrack. Here we’re treated to a series of sumptuous, gorgeously composed shots of the universe, nature, the opulence of the sprawling estate the film is set on, weirdly beautiful images of Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourgh and a magnificent steed seemingly moving forward, which, as we keep fixing our gaze, move in reverse. Or are they going forward, too? This montage, layered with beauty and portent, climaxes with a shot of the most gorgeous image of mass destruction I’ve yet to witness in any film.

We are now ready for Melancholia in all its splendour.

The carefully composed images of this evocative preamble lead to his trademark dogme-styled shaky-cam as we follow the events of Justine’s wedding day.

And what a wedding!

Maestro von Trier plunges us into a dinner party that explodes with yummy vitriolic sniping amongst the assembled members of the family.

Justine and her handsome, but rather unimaginative, bland and ineffectual husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive two hours late and are chastized by Charlotte.

Justine’s Dad (John Hurt) appears with two chubby ladies both named Betty and drunkenly engages in a childish game of openly filching the silverware and complaining repeatedly to a server about the lack of said silverware. Justine’s Mom (Charlotte Rampling), with nary a shred of humour, hurls out a variety of bile-tainted barbs against her silly ex-husband.

During his toast, Dad quips about Mom’s "domineering" qualities. Mom proceeds to disagree and then, in a most "domineering" fashion, steals the limelight, interrupting Dad’s speech and makes one of her own. It's quite the inspirational wedding speech as she declares, "I hate marriage" and adds her well-wishes to the happy couple with: "Enjoy it while it lasts!"

Udo Kier offers a whole whack of magnificent scene stealing knee-slappers as the pricey, pretentious wedding planner who prissily declares he's "at his wit's end". He later complains that Justine has ruined “his” wedding and announces he will never again look at her. In a hilarious running gag, dearest Udo holds up his hand and averts his eyes every single time Kirsten Dunst passes him.

Ah, family!

Ah, weddings!

Ah, Maestro von Trier!

He delivers the goods what might be one of the most memorable movie weddings - right up there with The Godfather and The Deer Hunter.

The lovely bride mopes about inconsolably. The best man (and her ad agency boss), played by Stellan Skarsgard with suitable slime-oozing, expects her to – at the wedding, no less! – come up with a tag line for their new and important client, Claire natters on to Justine about decorum while her husband John (a great Kiefer Sutherland - oddly sweet AND knobbish) keeps reminding everyone how much the wedding is costing him.

Pathetic hubby Michael proves he clearly doesn't have the stuff to enter this family. When it's time for him to make a speech, he burbles out a few uncomfortable sentiments that boil down to "I love you." Nice enough if you're marrying into a "normal" family, but clearly inadequate for this clan endowed with flamboyant dysfunction and, one hell of a lot of style. Even more pathetic is when Michael privately presents Justine with his wedding gift - a snapshot of an Empire Apple orchard that he just bought for their years of retirement.

I don't know about you, but if I were Kirsten Dunst at the peak of my youth and beauty, the last thing I'd want to be thinking about on my wedding night is sitting in the shade of an apple tree when I'm more wizened and rotting than an apple that's fallen to the ground and has festered in the sun.

Is then, any wonder that just before the cutting of the cake, Justine decides to take a bath.

Her loopy Mother decides to do the same.

Like daughter, like mother.

Furious, John grabs his Mother-in-law’s luggage and tosses the bags out front of the mansion. And just when it looks like all will settle down once husband and wife retreat to the nuptial boudoir, the new bride spurns hubby’s advances and rushes out onto the rolling lawns to look at the heavens and then have sex in a sand trap on the estate’s golf course with her boss’s nephew.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. All families behave this way, don’t they?

The entire first part of the film is subtitled “Justine”. The second half is subtitled “Claire”. In the latter portion of the film we discover that a mysterious planet, long hidden behind the sun, is making its way in the direction of the Earth. Astronomy buff John insists this will be an interplanetary “fly-by”, but Claire's obsessive internet trolling suggests there’s a very distinct possibility that the humungous, blue, glowing orb will collide with the Earth at a rate of 60,000 miles per second.

It is here the film launches into a tremendously sad waiting game as the sisters keep trying to make (mostly on Claire’s part) the sort of sibling connections of love that have kept and indeed keep eluding them.

By fusing a darkly comic domestic drama with an impending apocalypse, von Trier has created a bold and original work. There’s obviously the possibility that the movie works on a purely metaphorical level since the planet threatening Earth is called Melancholia and as such, this all might actually be one grand statement that the sickness of depression is what threatens to swallow everyone and everything whole.

I prefer, however, to think the metaphor exists within the literal context of life on Earth being snuffed out. I suspect this is ultimately the case as Justine's character feels like a mouthpiece for von Trier himself - especially when she very matter-of-factly declares: “The Earth is evil. Life on Earth is evil.”

As evil as it may be for von Trier, this evil has also yielded his genius and, most importantly, gives us an exquisitely beautiful, haunting and thought-provoking work of art.

Maestro von Trier has also created images that shall never retreat from the memory banks of all who see his film. Who will ever forget, for example, Kirsten Dunst adorned in her wedding dress as she lay (Ophelia-like) in a stream or as she bathes naked upon a rock under the gorgeous blue glow from the rogue planet?

And for every image of heartbreaking beauty, von Trier counters it with something so indelibly appalling (the vicious beating Justine lays upon her horse Abraham) that he creates, once more, an important film exposing the dichotomous nature of life itself.

It’s a great picture! Any petulant nonsense von Trier spewed out at the notorious Cannes film festival press conference about being a Nazi should ultimately be swept under a rug.

There's no need to allow anything to impede your experience of seeing this movie.

Melancholia is having its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011) and will be released theatrically in Canada via e-one Entertainment.

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