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Melancholia (2011)

Crisis on Interminable Earths

I didn't think I could sink any lower than watching the first half of Lars von Trier's Melancholia at four in the morning. The opening eight minutes of surreal, slow-motion imagery alone had me chugging coffee and resisting the urge to turn the movie off. Fortunately, the universe has a way of reminding us that things can always get worse--which is why mom calling at 5am should have come as no surprise. Right about the time I'd pressed "Play", she told me, my grandmother died.

As further evidence of cosmic coincidence--or cosmic irony--after I got off the phone and resumed the film, the picture sprung curiously to life. I'd been interrupted at almost the exact middle point, at the beginning of the second chapter (which in tone, coherence, and enjoyment completely contrasts the lousiness of the first). Honestly, chapter one had me asking big questions about art; namely, why are there so many highly praised, awful variations of it? Von Trier's pretentious, nonsensical, and cruelly slow opening hour drained my will to live. Then, in the midst of tragedy, both me and Melancholia emerged with a renewed sense of spirit.

Melancholia is an odd (and, I'm sure, unintentional) mash-up of a lot of this year's critically acclaimed art-house films. In the story of bickering sisters who can't let go of their hatred even in the face of disaster, we have a call-back to Martha Marcy May Marlene. In the naval-gazing sci-fi device of another planet approaching Earth's orbit with dubious consequences, we see shades of Another Earth. And in the self-congratulatory but ultimately empty pretty pictures of the cosmos, we harken back to The Tree of Life. The first half of Melancholia is practically a critique of those movies, showcasing all of the pseudo-intellectual visual and dramatic flourishes that mask a lack of imagination on the part of the director and screenwriter.

We meet Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a successful copywriter, on her wedding day. She and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), arrive two hours late for their reception, due to their limo getting stuck in the mud. The party is a lavish affair set at the home of Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The girls' divorced parents struggle through awkward speeches, and Justine's boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), announces her promotion to Art Director at his ad firm during his toast.

I've just described the nuts-and-bolts version of the wedding. I've left out the plentiful eccentricities that make getting to this information a real chore. The party is full of rich asshole types who take great pleasure in teasing the help, drinking, and throwing temper tantrums. Jack introduces Justine to his nephew, Tim (Brady Corbet), and informs both of them that Tim's new job hinges on his ability to squeeze a tag-line for a new campaign out of her by the end of the evening. Tim fails at this, but does manage to have moonlight sex with the bride on the estate's golf course. This takes place after Justine has stolen a cart for an impromptu ride around the greens, which she caps off by popping a squat to take a nice, long pee.

Oh, and let's not forget what led to this infidelity: Justine and her head-over-heels groom snuck away from the party so he could present a photo of an apple orchard he'd just bought for her. Suitably, she walked out on the loser in favor of some nineteenth-hole action. Meanwhile, Justine's mom (Charlotte Rampling) has locked herself in the bathroom, and the wedding planner (Udo Kier) throws a fit because of the lateness of the proceedings and general bitchiness of the guests. Later, he swoops through the party with his hand up to his face, unable to look at the bride or anyone connected with her.

In order for genuine kookiness to work, the characters involved must be accessible. Von Trier falls flat in establishing the relationships between people or their behavioral motivations. It takes a good, long while to figure out that John is Claire's husband and not a brother to her and Justine. We never figure out the reason for Justine's frequent mood swings and generally unpleasant disposition--nor are we given any indication as to what attracted a seemingly decent guy like Michael to her in the first place.

My biggest issue is that both Justine's parents and sister have distinctly British accents, while she just sounds like Kirsten Dunst. Sure, maybe she was adopted; maybe she was raised in an American boarding school; maybe part of her completely affected lifestyle is masking her native voice. I would've loved to have heard that story. Instead, we get the big scene where Justine tells off Jack in a way that suggests the audience has some kind of an emotional investment in their relationship that was introduced barely a half-hour ago.

Chapter one is a test of will, but Melancholia's second half is quite a magnificent reward. Von Trier strips his cast down to Justine, Claire, John, and their young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr) and picks up a few days after the wedding. Justine comes to stay with her sister's family, acting even more depressed and self-absorbed than usual. John obsesses over a recently discovered planet that many believe will collide with Earth in a matter of days. Claire frets about the end of the world, despite her husband's reassurances that Melancholia will pass them right by.

Gainsbourg is wonderful here, barely masking a lifetime of withering sisterly concern and a parenting instinct that wrestles with spousal trust. That her unraveling takes place during the end times is deliciously metaphorical: even if Melancholia doesn't destroy the Earth, she has nowhere to run, emotionally or physically. Sutherland does very well, too, for the most part setting aside his action-star persona in favor of a more restrained performance. John is wealthy beyond belief, but he's still saddled with crazy in-laws and a genuine fear of the apocalypse.

The most interesting part of chapter two is that it has absolutely nothing to do with chapter one. Sure, the characters are the same, but von Trier could have literally cut the first hour-and-five-minutes off this thing and still delivered a solid feature. In fact, the opening montage of Justine's doomsday visions (oh, yeah, she's psychic on top of everything else) drains nearly all the tension out of the last twenty minutes. We know the planets will collide, so we also know that Claire's late-picture sense of relief will be short-lived (she mistakenly believes that Melancholia is receding from Earth's orbit).

Melancholia is a gorgeous film. Manuel Alberto Claro lends an otherworldly quality to Claire and John's remote mansion and surrounding countryside. He's so good, in fact, that all of the deliberately surreal imagery feels gratuitous--worse, it feels like von Trier is using his cinematographer to show off. The director's previous film, Antichrist (also starring Gainsbourg), was a triumph of artsiness and atmosphere that occasionally strayed into the inscrutably weird. Mostly, though, it told a straightforward story. Melancholia is another in the line of tired, Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories that asks the audience to do the screenwriter's work for them. Fortunately, the narrative and visual flourishes are restrained in the film's second half.

Like von Trier's film, my heart is divided in two. I highly recommend Melancholia for the screenplay, performances, and lovely, solemn atmosphere of the second hour. But I can't suggest that anyone put themselves through chapter one. Life's too short for that nonsense.

Note: I'd like to believe in a parallel reality, one where Gainsbourg won Cannes' top acting prize instead of Dunst. Maybe it was a case of low expectations blowing eager minds, but I didn't see anything in Dunst's performance that couldn't have been executed just as well by any one of her Bring It On co-stars. She's fine, but "fine" doesn't cut it when starring in a film with a truly powerful actor like Gainsbourg. Her gut-wrenching, paranoid turn just about had me looking out the window for irregular formations in the sky.

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