Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Melancholia" Addresses Big Questions

“Melancholia” Addresses Cosmic Questions

By Skip Sheffield

When a film is titled “Melancholia” you know you are not in for a barrel of laughs.
“Melancholia” is an archaic expression for depression. It is also the name of a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth in Lars van Trier’s challenging new film of the same name.
“Melancholia” is challenging in a good kind of way. It took me a while before I could see where the writer-director was going in part one, called Justine. The opening sequence is pretentiously arty, with alternately dark and bright, mysterious celestial images, displayed to the tune of Wagner’s tragic, grandiose opera “Tristan and Isolde.”
The setting is an imposing seaside estate so large it has an 18-hole golf course. It is the wedding night of a young couple: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).
Justine is not your typical radiant bride. While she smiles, kisses and show affection for Michael, she is clearly troubled by something. The story begins comically with the couple’s absurdly long limousine having trouble navigating the long, winding, narrow road to the estate.
It is a huge, elaborate wedding with full orchestra, gourmet dinner and scores of guests, overseen by a fussy, temperamental wedding planner (Udo Kier).
Nothing goes right with the wedding or subsequent reception, starting with the late arrival of the couple. It quickly devolves into an uncomfortable wedding hell.
The bride’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) warily tries to sooth the bride. Her father (John Hurt) seems three sheets to the wind. The mother (Charlotte Rampling) is an obviously embittered mess.
Claire’s husband John (Keifer Sutherland), the guy who is footing the bills, is angry and exasperated. Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) is an egotistical jerk. Jack’s young assistant Tim (Brady Corbet) has a thing going for the bride.
Weddings tend to be emotional occasions, but this one careens out of control. The whole thing is an embarrassing spectacle. Clearly this marriage is doomed before it ever begins.
Doom is the main subject of the second part of the film, titled Claire. Doom is manifested by the aforementioned rogue planet called Melancholia, which was only hinted at in the first part. It is clearly visible on the horizon and looming larger all the time.
John insists Melancholia will miss planet Earth by miles. Claire isn’t so sure. Their 10-year-old son Leo (Cameron Spurr) simply wonders why everyone is so upset.
Leo seems to have a calming effect on Justine. In fact she seems preternaturally calm compared to her sister, who is falling apart.
If you’ve made it this far, the finale of the film is heartbreakingly beautiful. The performances are searing.
“Melancholia” dares ask the really big questions. What is the nature of happiness? Is true love possible? How does one face the inevitability of death? That von Trier can pose these really vexing questions in such visually beautiful, poetic manner is proof of his artistry. I have found von Trier’s earlier films angry, abrasive and depressing. This one makes up for that. Perhaps it is because von Trier himself was diagnosed with clinical depression, recognized the problem and got treatment for it. True art often come from a very painful place.

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