Music Feature

Film Review: Melancholia

by Piers Marchant
Lars Von Trier's apocalyptic wedding album.

Dir. Lars Von Trier
Score: 7.2

Weddings are often used by filmmakers as a way to convey a great deal of information about a group of characters all at once (consider the bravura opening of The Godfather or The Deerhunter as the model). Besides gathering everyone together in a confined space, you also have the ramped-up emotional psyche fulcrum tantalizingly close to the surface. It's so handy and well-established, it makes all the sense in the world that contrarian filmmaker Lars Von Trier would stand the process on its head.

His new film combines the usual assortment of wedding tropes -- shimmering beauty, neurotic sisters, bitterly estranged parents -- with an end of the world Armageddon in ways that reveal the fallacies of both simultaneously. Beyond a hypnotically jarring opening salvo, where Von Trier foreshadows various nightmarish apocalyptic visions of his characters sewn together by the music of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, when we first meet Justine (Kirsten Dunst), she's glowing ecstatically, on her way to her wedding reception with her new husband Michael (Alexander SkarsgÄrd) in the back of an enormous white limo. Arriving horrifically late, the couple dash inside the castle-like mansion of her rich brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) and sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has pulled out all the stops to produce a lavish, near-royalty type of reception. The trouble is, beyond the first few minutes, it becomes increasingly clear something deep and disturbing is happening with Justine. In the course of the all-night reception, she goes from beaming and euphoric to increasingly miserable and withdrawn. She keeps needing to escape, it seems, to go take a bath, or step out into the broad moonlight; she continually blows off her genteel and well-meaning husband and has sex with a random young man in a sand trap instead. By the early morning, she's angrily quit her job as the newly-appointed art director of a major advertising firm and dumped her husband, who leaves out the front door still in tux and tails, carrying his bags with his parents and walking sadly past her.

To make matters more unendurable, the rapid approach of a rogue planet (called "Melancholia"), which at first appears as if it will miss earth entirely as a "fly-by," instead threatens to destroy everything on our own planet. Much as in his last film Antichrist, Von Trier enjoys crafting these kinds of fables with very few characters and almost no geographic release. They are stuck together in small, if not gorgeous, parameters, with no outside connection possible. Indeed, a hallmark of his more recent films is the intense alienation with which he imprisons his characters. Even when Justine and Claire go horseback riding (seen often from a helicopter shot above, sweeping over the trees), the effect is somehow even more constrictive and foreboding, with swirling mists clouding their trail. There's no escaping his particular brand of ennui. At first, it seems as if Justine is the damaged soul, unable to cope with her life for even a short while (when her husband is leaving her, she can only say to him "What did you expect?"); but as the danger and seriousness of their predicament gets more pronounced, she appears to be increasingly sane, even as Claire begins to unravel. You would be hard pressed to find a film with a greater contrast between its opening scene and its final one, but, that, too, is part of the point: In a world in which societal expectations and social mores are shown to be little more than paper lanterns, burning up in the atmosphere, the problems of a tiny planet filled with people don't amount to terribly much.

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