Sunday, November 27, 2011


Film: Melancholia [2011, denmark]
Where I saw it: Los Angeles @ Nuart Theatre
Who with: SJ
Rating: ***
Rating for Los Angeles rainstorm during viewing: *****!

Los Angeles cooperated weather-wise as we drove to the Nuart to watch Melancholia, Danish director Lars von Trier's latest opus to depressing cinema. Black clouds crept over the city and a tremendous downpour  began shortly before we made it to the theatre. Perfect. How can you be expected to watch a movie about a woman's battle with depression and the end of the world if the sky is blue and wisps of fluffy clouds hover above the theatre? You can't. Melancholia, an art film meditation on the hopelessness of life, needs gloomy storms to help drive home the point. A rainy, cold day provides the perfect backdrop to watch a movie such as this. Even the rain couldn't make me love the film though, but imagine my reaction to it if I'd walked out of the Nuart blinded by the bright as diamond-glare Southern California sun? That would have been a painful experience. I'll take those comforting grey skies any day, even if I wasn't watching a movie such as this.

Melancholia opens with a jaw-dropping, amazing sequence of various slow-motion and freeze frame images backed by a glorious, swelling score of strings from composer Richard Wagner [1865's "Tristan und Isolde"]. I wasn't expecting something so breathtaking, immediate, colorful and in-your-face stunning from von Trier. This opening salvo is the best moments in the film for me and it seems as if von Trier has watched Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and decided to one-up Malick in regards to filming beautiful shots of nature and the universe. It's a shame this uber-art style of the first sequence didn't carry over into the rest of the movie, as von Trier quickly reverts back to the style and look that comprises the majority of his films--hand-held cameras and photography with washed-out hue.

Kirsten Dunst plays "Justine" and we first meet her as she is sharing a limo with her new husband "Michael" [Alexander Skarskgard] as they head to the post-wedding shindig in a remote, gorgeous hotel owned by her sister and brother-in-law. "Justine" is all smiles and laughter when we first meet her, but things are going to change as we begin to see that the smiles are not authentic. The true "Justine" is lost in a haze of never-ending depression and this wedding? Just an attempt to knock her out of her crippling malaise. She's got a supportive sister in "Claire" [Charlotte Gainsbourg], a dashing groom, a good job, but it's not enough. She'd rather slump off to have a hot bath in private than mingle with the guests, or the sister, or the newly christened husband.

If we think that "Justine" is depressed in the first segment of Melancholia, just wait until we get to the second when we all know that the end of the world is nigh. There's a rogue planet dubbed Melancholia that's making a pass through our solar system and it is on a collision course with this little planet called Earth. Faced with only a few days to live, people react differently. For "Justine", it's time to sink further into the abyss of the quagmire of her depression and considering the ramifications of impending death, that depression is understandable. Who wouldn't be just a little down-in-the-dumps if there was a large planet about to crush the planet we all live on?

Lars von Trier has been a filmmaker that hasn't given a damn about the audience's discomfort since the mid-1980s with Element of Crime. He's repeatedly made films that challenge, punish, annoy and exasperate as much as they enthrall, move and intrigue. His films often explore heavy themes such as suffering and abuse, and while I would hesitate to label von Trier an entertaining director, I would call him an important filmmaker. He's probably the best example of what the term "auteur" means for well-known, global directors making movies in 2011. A controversial figure [his rant about Hitler and Nazis at the Cannes film festival earlier this year got him banned from Cannes and criminally charged by French authorities], but a talented one, whose films are hard to watch and then be passive about it when they are over.

Melancholia is another of those kinds of movies from Lars von Trier. Not a lot of fun to sit through, it dazzles, frustrates, irritates, enraptures and pulls you in while keeping you at an arm's length at the same time. I found the wedding segment of "Justine" kind of a pointless part of the film that pales to the intimate, emotional wrenching second part. Had the entire film been set among just the few characters that comprise the "Claire" portion of the film, I would have liked Melancholia more. There's genuine dread conjured up in the film's waning moments as a small group of people face certain death in different ways. The wedding sequence comes off as pale and inconsequential when paired with the raw sadness that is exposed as the film unfolds. Dunst is being lauded for awards and she is different than we've seen her as an adult. She gets to play happy [not often] and gets to play miserable. Those who hand out awards love this kind of role.

I'm certainly glad I saw Melancholia, but I couldn't help disappointed as I walked the wet Los Angeles streets. It is just the usual kind of film from von Trier: uneven, provocative for the sake of provocation, ponderous and, yes, thrilling. It's Lars von Trier. I'm not sure why I was expecting anything other than that when I bought my ticket.

No comments: