Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: "Melancholia"

Lars von Trier, ever a controversy magnet, attracted quite a bit of attention for his remarks about understanding Hitler at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. This controversy, which ended with the Danish director being ejected from the festival, almost overshadowed his latest film, which managed to pick up a Best Actress prize for star Kirsten Dunst. Yet for all of the attention given to Mr. Von Trier's uncomfortable press conference, and to his previous film Antichrist, the craziness, surprisingly, ends there. Von Trier's latest effort, Melancholia, is actually devoid of the usual emotional (or physical) torture the director is known for inflicting upon audiences.

After a gorgeous prologue filled with slow-motion images, culminating in the earth colliding with a larger planet, the film settles into the story proper. Split into two chapters, the first focuses on Justine (Dunst), on the day of her wedding. As the the wedding reception drags on into the night, Justine begins to act increasingly inconsistent, much to the frustration of those around her, namely her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). But enough about that, let's talk about the end of the world. Sorry, was that an awkward transition? Well, prepare yourself, because the film's movement between chapters isn't much better. At the end of the day, Melancholia is something of an art house disaster movie, only with little emphasis on the disaster. As is turns out, a planet (bluntly named Melancholia), is due to pass by earth. Claire is worried that the planet with collide, even though John tells her not to worry.

And if it sounds like the two halves of the movie don't seem to match up on paper, they don't fare any better on screen. Chapter One honestly feels like it needs to go off and become its own complete, separate story, and it drags when compared to the more anxiety-ridden Chapter Two. Although maybe it's for the best that Chapter One is only half of a film, because I don't think I'd want to sit through an entire feature's worth of it. Littered with interesting angles to explore, the film instead chooses to introduce boring subplots and inane scenes that go nowhere (if you can find something of worth in the scene where Justine urinates on a golf course, please let me know...). Instead of exploring the relationship between Justine and her bile-spewing, marriage-hating mother (Charlotte Rampling), or really examining why Justine starts to become so bizarre, we have to endure a subplot involving Jack (Stellan Skarsgaard), Justine's new boss. To be brief, it's stupid. And as beautiful as the film often is, technical aspects sometimes falter. The constant use of handheld camera work fails to add to the overall effect. And if you're a stickler when it comes to the 180 degree rule, you'll have a heart attack when you see how von Trier shoots and edits the conversations together.

Thankfully, Melancholia ends with its stronger half. As the film's perspective orients itself around Claire, and the story actually focuses on the titular planet, the film becomes less frustrating, and more engaging. In large part, this is due to von Trier's significantly better writing for the role of Claire. Justine is meant to be all-over-the-place, but unfortunately the script's treatment of her is equally scatter-shot. It's not just that Claire is a showier part that requires more obvious emoting. Quite simply, Gainsbourg blows her co-star clear out of the water. Claire's conflict may be a simple one, but in the hands of Ms. Gainsbourg, it comes to life with consistency and conviction. Faring much better in her second go-round with von Trier, it's Gainsbourg, not Dunst, whose performance deserves to be talked about (and possibly awarded).

And by finally focusing on the end of the world scenario von Trier is obviously eager to get to, Melancholia finally develops a sense of purpose. Whereas Chapter One has Justine urinating on a golf course and some shots of space that look like rejects from The Tree of Life, Chapter Two shows us how the small group of characters react to the oncoming planet. There's fear, doubt, confusion, and anger, all amid a simple-yet-intriguing sci-fi premise. And, barring some awfully strange and strangely awful dialogue (the child actor has terrible lines), it all fits together rather well. Melancholia may be as ignorant of science and physics as a Michael Bay blockbuster, but at least here, there's something of substance to distract you and aid in the suspension of disbelief. A scene where Jack tries to calm down Claire as she has trouble breathing winds up being full of understated suspense and intensity, even though it only lasts a short while. And even when we know how the story is going to end, how it has to end, the fact that von Trier has given us a limited range of characters to spend time with, rather than covering a huge ensemble, makes the sense of impending doom that much more earned. In, say, 2012, when we see Los Angeles fall to ruin, countless lives are lost amid overblown spectacle. Melancholia contains no explosions (barring the impact of the planetary collision), yet works on a much higher level as an end of the world story.

To a point, that is. Whatever the strengths of Chapter Two, there are still residual flaws that creep in from Chapter One. Justine may become a supporting character, but the messiness of the writing hangs over the role (and Dunst's performance) for the film's entire run. What von Trier has in mind for her never feels as focused and concrete as it should. Is her mental state somehow tied to the planet? Where does her hatred of life on earth come from? Were her role designed with greater purpose, these questions would intrigue, but as it stands, they perplex and annoy, to the point that you'll likely give up on figuring them out because you won't care, no matter how many times the lovely prelude from Wagner's Tristan & Isolde is used as soundtrack. For as many strengths as Melancholia has, it is also weighed down by errors in writing, whether in stiff dialogue or clumsy handling of themes and symbolism. So while Melancholia may stand above other end of the world flicks for its dedication to its characters, too often that dedication is inconsistent or shallow, rendering von Trier's latest equal parts compelling and tedious.

Grade: B-/C+

No comments: