Friday, November 18, 2011

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)


Now here's a cinematic vision of the apocalypse which does not linger on wastelands, viruses, or famous landmarks being destroyed, but on something that is much more tautly compelling. "Melancholia" portrays an end of the world scenario where there isn't any last ditch efforts for heroism, but instead only passivity and fatalism.

But this film, another masterful creation by Lars von Trier whose auteur visions never cease to amaze me, more than anything, is a psychological drama. Yes, it does have a great build-up towards an apocalyptic situation, but "Melancholia" started as a dysfunctional mental drama and ended as a surprisingly tender one. More than ever, I think that the film's fictitious planet, named 'Melancholia', that is about to collide with Earth in a colossal, space-bound "dance of death" is an immense dramatic device and is there purely to accentuate the film's drama and give it a more desperate edge. It's a drama film enveloped in dreaded hopelessness, it's a film filled with frightening ideas but more importantly, it's a film that shows imagination at one of its highest but at the same time at its darkest, and produces a fluctuating dramatic depth quite reminiscent of films by Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Judging from his previous works, it's quite evident that Lars von Trier is firmly growing not just as a filmmaker of ideas but a director of actors. This can be seen in Bjork's emotionally draining performance in his "Dancer in the Dark" or even in his most recent "Antichrist", which is highlighted by Charlotte Gainsbourg's staggering performance (who also stars in this film). "Melancholia" further elevates this budding directorial skill of his with its manifestation in the form of Kirsten Dunst in a heavily complex performance (she won the Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) as the emotionally impaired Justine and, again, Charlotte Gainsbourg in a vulnerable role as her sister, Claire. Lars von Trier has started the film with a lavish yet nightmarish wedding (with Justine as the bride and Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard, as the groom), which suggests the unconscious, entropy-like effect of the 'Melancholia' planet even in the subtlest of human relationships.

From this sequence, populated by great character actors like John Hurt as Justine's father and Stellan Skarsgard as her boss, amid a highly-populated environment, the film has built a genuine connection between Justine and Claire; a connection that may not be perfect (Claire repeatedly stated how sometimes, she hates Justine so much) but a deeply felt sisterly bond, nonetheless.

And then there's Kiefer Sutherland who coolly played Claire's husband, a wealthy scientist whose skepticism about the planetary collision between 'Melancholia' and Earth brings emotional tranquility to his wife but worry within him. He is, after all, living in pretension, just like how Justine pretended she's all smiles at the wedding.

I'm not much of a fan of child characters in film (only the unnecessary ones) because often times they can be a drag, but Cameron Spurr as Leo sure is a revelation especially with that distinct voice which really fits the film's tonal disposition. Now, some may argue that "Melancholia" has broken some rules in the 'Dogme 95' film movement, which Lars von Trier himself has founded, but seeing that this is a film made 16 years after it, I think it's time for him to deconstruct, and "Melancholia", combining art house sensibilities with technology, came out to be a worthy end product.

Aside from the ethereal shots in the opening sequence and some special effects here and there, von Trier maintained his usage of a non-stagnant camera (brilliant cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro) and kept his grasp on the whole film's emotional nuances and themes. Although it can be stated that von Trier has compromised with some visual magics of the mainstream, "Melancholia", as an aesthetic whole, is still wholly independent and utterly pure.

Should the planet "Melancholia" be taken literally? Being aware that it is also a name for a psychological condition, the fictitious planet can be an encompassing metaphor for emotional transformation (notice how Justine and Claire trade positions, emotional-wise, as the film progresses) and degradation (how the once cool and collected John has suddenly met his fate in a fashion too unfitting for him).

As much as it is a vision of the apocalypse, "Melancholia" is also a psychological discourse, albeit not too showy about it. As the planet 'Melancholia' looms large above, it may be a bringer of end to human existence, but it can also be a sign of the arrival of a distorted state of mind. One of the genuinely 'great' films of 2011.


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