Thursday, 10 November 2011

Film Review: Melancholia

Last night I went to see Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard and Keifer Sutherland. The film was shown as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival, but should be on general release quite soon. It's been leading the pack at various European film festivals and awards shows, and let me tell you, this film deserves every accolade it's getting. It's one of those pieces of cinema that makes you reconsider what a film can be, and the types of human experience it can explore.

The film is structured in two parts. The first chapter, "Justine", concerns Kirsten Dunst's character, and her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). It takes place at her sister and brother-in-law's beautiful country estate, and we are briefly introduced to her family and their various dysfunctions. The focus of the chapter, though, is the unravelling of Justine's emotional state under the weight of the star above her, and her sudden inability to enjoy her wedding or connect with her new husband. Her behavior is explained in a key moment later in the film, but in these early moments, we are only able to watch as she inexplicably starts to dismantle her life - at her wedding, of all possible times.

The second chapter, "Claire" takes place days or maybe weeks later, when the people of earth know that the star is actually a planet, headed for the sun, that might pass us by or might crash into Earth and destroy us. Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is Justine's sister, married to John (Keifer Sutherland) and mother to Leo (Cameron Spurr), and her experience of this threat is extremely different to Justine's. Her tension and fear - for her son, for what could happen to her life - is palpable, and she displays the strain of eroding faith that I think many people would share in her situation. The sheer existence of such a planet, and the knowledge that she's living through an actual doomsday scenario, goes up against her belief that there's no possible way life or the human race could be utterly wiped out like this, and resolves onscreen as a creeping sense of betrayal that's far too big for her to process.

One of the things that makes this film so amazing is how believably it realizes what is a fairly far-fetched scenario. (I'm telling myself it's far-fetched. Do not contradict me. There are no planets hurtling towards us.) Justine and Claire, as well as the other characters we see, react with all the helplessness, anger, twisted resignation, preemptive grief and sheer terror that you would expect if the situation was real, and the director doesn't forget to infuse the film with the twin sensations of waiting in anticipation, and time inexorably running out. A key change from other apocalyptic films is the focus on small domestic drama, rather than the action-packed efforts of soldiers or renegades to stop the threat and save the world, and I think it's this that makes it feel like a far more genuine exploration of human nature and experience. Another contrast is the lack of grimy, desperate apocalyptic scenarios; even the planet - the instrument of the apocalypse - is rendered in greens and blues, or shining like a second moon, contributing to the strange beauty of the film's setting.

The actors handle their roles with skill; Charlotte Gainsbourg is fantastic, and I'm more interested in Kirsten Dunst than I've ever been. I can't say enough about how sympathetic and believable their portrayals of Claire and Justine are. The supporting actors are also excellent, and I thought Keifer Sutherland was unexpectedly perfect, infusing John with a likely level of entitled-lord-of-the-manor, balancing it with his obviously deep love for his wife and son, and then somehow including a weakness that makes his end utterly believable.

A lot of people I know have had bad experiences with Lars Von Trier films in the past. And yes, Dancer in the Dark was traumatic, Dogville was uncomfortably cathartic, Antichrist was horrifying, I know, I've heard. Melancholia won't necessarily change opinions of Trier as a director who likes to elicit extreme emotions from his audience, but the film is so outstanding that it's worth the risk. It's beautiful, the emotions are perfectly handled, and the ending is...well, I won't spoil it. The whole film is intense, exhilarating and sad, and you should go see it even if you need a stiff drink afterwards. (Actually, if you go to Palace Cinemas like I did, you can take the drink in with you, for fortification during. Might be a good idea...)

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