Suicide by Planet
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Lars Von Trier
Melancholia begins with the two stalest of film clichés, presented back-to-back: the end of the world, and a wedding. The nuptials are those of Michael (an absolutely overwhelmed Alexander Skarsgård) and Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who wishes she were anywhere but at her own wedding reception. The camera jumps from person to person in nauseating fashion, wobbling back and forth as if it were almost about to fall off a tripod. We are meant to be viewing things from the distorted perspective of Danish writer-director Lars Von Trier.
Not a single event occurs in Von Trier's Melancholia without rousing some kind of reaction in its audience. Such a maddening display of provocation! Von Trier is obsessed with the theater, the excitement that comes from mixing up the unfamiliar with the predictable. Some of his sketches are kinda funny, others are absolutely turgid. The wedding sequence reaches its nadir when Dunst starts having unprotected sex with a new hire at her advertising company. At the same time, the party's guests learn of a larger planet named Melancholia heading towards Earth at an unbelievable rate.
As the titular planet accelerates towards them, von Trier pulls out every trick imaginable for his blonde protagonist. There is basically not a moment in Melancholia where Kirsten Dunst isn't drunk or in some drug stupor induced to treat her underlying depression. She is so out of it that as the film spirals on, her sister Claire, sleepily portrayed by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is left to carry the action. Anxious and unable to speak above a whisper, I pretty much can't think of a worse person with which to spend the last days of your life.
Von Trier has apologized in advance for Melancholia. In his tongue-in-cheek director's statement on the film, he demurs, "In Visconti, there was always something to elevate matters beyond the trivial...elevate it to masterpieces! I am confused now and feel guilty. What have I done?"
Indeed, Melancholia features many unusual trappings for the director — lavish and austere, his best images resemble the still paintings he sometimes thrusts at the audience. Then again, at times you would have to be convinced that you weren't watching Armageddon or Deep Impact, and it's this synchronicity that has the director second guessing himself. Thankfully, von Trier spoils the will-they die-or-won't-they? tension in the film's dynamic opening: a music video depiction of the planetary collision that lies ahead. What follows in the next two hours is mere anti-climax.
The wedding of Dunst's Justine occupies the entire first hour of Melancholia. It occurs on a large estate ("kitschy" according to von Trier, who finds all trappings of wealth equally absurd) facing an eighteen hole golf course. The preparations for the event are lavishly undertaken by Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who we are told has gone to all this trouble as a kind of farewell to his wife's sister: seeing her happily married, he hopes to finally separate the two. Justine makes that impossible by dumping her new husband, quitting her job and squeezing in a nap all in the same evening.
If anyone can play a shitshow, it's Kirsten Dunst. She based fifty percent of her performance here on Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, the rest of the time she simply acts inebriated, swigging from a whiskey bottle and leaning on her dance partners as they fear for her collapse. She is believably crazy, and later on informs her sister that she "knows" that Earth is about to be struck by a planet just as she knows we are all alone in the universe and no one will miss us. It's hard to take this seriously next to slow motion shots of Gainsbourg's young son embracing her. But you weren't taking this seriously, were you?
As with his own estranged biological father, Gainsbourg and Dunst's dad (John Hurt) abandons them twice in the novelistic melodrama. Their mother would like to leave her ungrateful kids, but can't. Children are sheltered and taken care of, but everyone else leaves the person who is supposed to care about them most. For the fatherless von Trier, the idea of psychological subtlety is anathema to his existence. Melancholia is Von Trier laying the basest reflection of his personal trauma on us, and it certainly comes across as more heartfelt than multiple sequences of chicks staring at an approaching planet about to engulf them.
After the wedding, Justine shows up at the estate again, a complete shell of a human being. Her sister cannot even manage to talk her into a bath. It is only the news of Earth's pending destruction that brings her alive again.
Eager to display her "acting chops", Dunst puts on quite the display as she admires the planet with her corporeal form. This topless exhibition is also supposed to be construed as the subtle overshadowing of her sister, who observes her nude forms as violins screech meaningfully on the soundtrack. Perhaps won over by the full frontal, Kiefer Sutherland becomes quick to agree with Dunst's dire conclusions, succumbing more swiftly than he did to the panicked admonitions of his wife.
At the vast but spiritually tiny mansion, horses become restless under the wordly glare of impending doom. Von Trier has placed himself in the position of a master, bluntly delivering a bloated final cut in two parts, each titled after a Lawrence Durrell meme. To meet their planetary destruction head-on, Kirsten, Charlotte and her son Tim construct a weird little monument to death, as if to ward off the bad and embrace the rest. It's not totally unsurprising, but it's a little expected.
"American Pie" - Madonna (mp3)
"American Pie/Daughter" - Pearl Jam (mp3)
"The Saga Begins" - Weird Al (mp3)