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  • Jeff Marker

    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Melancholia solidifies Lars von Trier’s status as the Sylvia Plath of cinema. He is a master of his medium and makes artful films, but films which leave us feeling psychologically wounded. Or at least leave us in need of a hug. If you can weather von Trier’s descents into the abyss, though, the payoff is usually significant. It certainly is in Melancholia.

This is not a departure from von Trier’s signature style or themes. The film begins with a stunning, minutes-long series of super-slow motion shots, all embellished to some degree by CGI. Post-production effects are also used throughout the film to place an approaching celestial body in the sky. Otherwise, though, von Trier’s Dogme 95 past is ever apparent through handheld camera and natural lighting.

The film isn’t quite as torturous as Antichrist, but it is depressing for most of its runtime. The story centers on two sisters with a strained relationship. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from depression, and it’s clear big sis Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has been her rescuer and enabler their whole lives. The movie begins with Justine’s wedding night. She has just wed Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), who loves her very much and wants to replace Claire as Justine’s rescuer. The lavish reception takes place at a posh resort owned by Claire’s husband John (Keifer Sutherland). The entire reception sequence owes huge debts to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and Jonathan Demy’s Rachel Getting Married. Again, it’s the Dogme style slowly revealing the staggering dysfunction of Justine’s family. By the end of the wedding night, there is no mystery why Justine and Claire each wage their own mental battles.

The film shifts into fresher territory when everyone discovers that a rogue planet called Melancholia is approaching Earth and might hit it. Bringing all of their particular baggage with them, Justine and Claire now face the probable end of the world.

Heavy as it is, the film is quite beautiful, thanks largely to outstanding performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg. The film has already earned Dunst a Best Actress award at Cannes, and she is almost certain to be nominated for a Golden Globe and Oscar. Gainsbourg (who incidentally won Best Actress at Cannes for Antichrist) is equally strong, but seems destined to be overlooked during awards season. I hope I’m wrong about that.

Melancholia explores its two female characters in great personal depth, but von Trier’s scenario begs us all to ask how we would face the same situation. The film is made tragic mostly by the presence of Claire’s young son. It’s heartbreaking to think of the life he will not be allowed to live. Yet the ending becomes rather uplifting. Or at least transformative, as the characters pass through the denial stage into acceptance. If the end is inevitable, then really, how else is there to behave except bravely and nobly? Human beings possess an inexplicable capacity to elevate themselves when circumstances call for it. Amidst all the foreboding and, well, melancholia, von Trier show us something not nihilistic or exploitative, but lovely and profound.


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