Friday, January 9, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #107 - Melancholia (2011, dir. Lars von Trier)

Claire: “What's going on Justine?”
Justine: “I'm trudging through this gray woolly yarn, it’s clinging to my legs, it's really heavy to drag along.”

            Melancholia, the second film in director Lars Von Trier’s ‘Trilogy of Depression’ (which also includes 2009’s Antichrist and 2013’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & Vol. 2), delves deeply into the human psyche and the resulting film is gorgeous, beguiling, and enigmatic. While it certainly isn’t quite as abrasive as its predecessor Antichrist, which also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, it certainly pulls no punches when it comes to its presentation of the human condition. What this film lacks in the blunt shock and awe that Von Trier has been infamous for it makes up for in pure, raw, unadulterated, and often awkward, emotion. Personally I hadn’t watched this film since seeing it in theaters three years ago but as I sat back to re-view it for this edition of I’d Love To Turn You On I found myself remembering the slow, epic roller coaster I was about to re-live.
            In true Von Trier fashion we are thrown immediately into the action in a magnificent yet puzzling slow motion sequence that alludes to the events to come. After a large cryptic planet crashes into the earth the events truly begin. The film is broken up into two parts: part one if focused upon Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, and part two is centers around Justine’s sister Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg. The two parts are very different at first glance and yet upon further examination they seem to be connected by the thread of dealing with depression (as should seem obvious as it is part of Von Trier’s ‘Trilogy of Depression’). In the first part of the film Justine is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) and the two attend a grand party thrown by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). While all seems fine at first, Justine’s smile slowly fades as she tires of the whole charade. She then begins a destructive downward spiral into a depressed state as she sheds layer after layer of false airs. I won’t go too far into the details for fear of spoiling the entire first part. However the second part of the film focuses upon Claire’s descent into depression brought on by both her sister’s emotional state and an immense fear of the approaching planet Melancholia, which is slated to pass right by the earth. Both sisters fell into a melancholic depression but in very different ways providing the film with two distinctive yet connected parts that culminate in a magnificent climax.

“The Red Star’s missing from Scorpio and Taurus is no longer there.”

            Thus ends the quick synopsis of an incredibly subtle film and for me the key to this film, as with many great films, lies in the subtleties. First and foremost, even more so than many other films that strive to achieve the same goal, Melancholia creates an alternate universe that still feels eerily familiar. At its core this film is science fiction, since it centers on a strange scientific event (the passing of a mysterious planet), yet it convincingly feels like the present. What is more important in this film is that the approaching planet is an impetus for the events to follow. The key to success for this aspect of Melancholia is that time, both in the sense of date and duration, has little or no importance as the events are merely strung together. Melancholia is in essence a science fiction film masked as a serious drama, or a serious drama with the backdrop of a strange alternate science fiction world.
            Along this vein of subtlety, the most important aspect of a film so focused upon the inner workings of human depression is of course the actors’ portrayal of their characters. While Charlotte Gainsbourg (who is always stunning) and the supporting cast were truly amazing, the real stand out of the film is Kirsten Dunst. Von Trier is known to do anything and everything to get the performance that he needs from his leads; he drug Justine through the depths and Dunst flawlessly rose to the occasion. Justine flew through the gamut of emotions and Dunst brought life to the character and made it seem effortless. Moving through so many emotional states in such a short period of a time in a film could very easily end up forced and ineffective but through the direction of Von Trier, Dunst succeeded brilliantly in her portrayal. With Gainsbourg and Dunst impeccably depicting their respective characters’ distinctive mental fragilities this simple film comes alive.
            If you have read any of my other attempts to ‘turn you on’ to film, you might have noticed that I have a particular affinity for aesthetics and I love a good cinematographer and Manuel Alberto Claro most certainly stepped up on this film. The visual aesthetic of the film is simply stunning! In addition to this, the use of special effects is also subtle, understated and perfectly integrated in a way that added to the world created rather than distracting from the story. Overall this is a beautiful yet somewhat understated film. In addition to this the soundtracks relies heavily upon excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to heighten the drama and grandiose nature of the story at hand.
            So to quickly sum up why you should take a 12-dollar chance on this DVD for your movie night, that is if you aren’t already drawn to the works of Lars Von Trier, this is a really beautiful and subtle journey into melancholic depression. But if you aren’t really into the whole serious drama thing, don’t forget that there is the odd sci-fi aspect to the film… there IS a planet headed for earth… WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN!?!? So, this film has it all: tension, drama, intrigue, and a touch of action. Take a chance and enjoy this experience artfully crafted for you by Lars Von Trier.

            - Edward Hill

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