Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Film Review: Melancholia

While the idea of interplanetary collision might seem ridiculous there are those who take the hypothesis very seriously, genuinely believing that the ending of the Mayan calendar in 2012 coincides with the return of a tenth planetoid to our solar system. Known as 'Nibiru', the planet is said to be in a 3,600 year elliptical orbit and is supposedly due to wreak havoc on Earth either by crashing into it or passing so close that it will fuck with the weather, tectonic plates and cause polar shifts. You would think that with less than a year and a half to go we'd be able to see it in the sky by now but the reason as to why we cannot, allegedly, is because it's approaching from the direction of the sun. Regardless, I'm guessing this is the inspiration director Lars von Trier took for his latest film, Melancholia.

You could be forgiven for thinking that you just walked in on the beginning of The Tree of Life given Melancholia's similar opening. We start with a lengthy overture to Wagner's 'Tristan & Isolde' over a compilation of mesmerising cosmic images. Cut to slow-motion captures of an impassive Kirsten Dunst in some eerie apocalyptic world where birds drop from the sky around her. Then a horse falls over, before cutting back to space as a beautiful celestial body slams into the Earth. It's somewhat disorientating to essentially stick 'the end' first, but one might imagine it was done for the purpose of setting a tone and framing subsequent proceedings in Von Trier's perspective on life. Jumping back to Earth we find a limo struggling to navigate its way round a tight bend. Newlyweds Michael (Skargård) and Justine (Dunst) are on the way to their very expensive reception organised by Justine's sister, Claire (Gainsbourg), and paid for by her gasbag husband John (Sutherland). Family tensions erupt and the wedding teeters on the brink of catastrophe as family dynamics and the dysfunctionalities therein are revealed. But maybe it was written in the stars because a rogue planet named Melancholia is hurtling toward Earth on a collision course. As the planet nears, otherwise level-headed Claire begins to break-down while clinically depressed Justine torpidly accepts the end of the world.

Melancholia is Von Trier's comeback from the universally panned Antichrist. The tortured director tried to explain that his work painted a picture of his own depression, and it seems to be much the same case here. Whatever you might think of Von Trier, he certainly has a knack for riling people and generating debate. His most admirable quality, whether it offends or not, is to daringly confront taboo subjects people would rather ignore at the risk of public ridicule. His works exists not to appeal to the masses, but to expunge his own troubled mind. And what a dark mind it is. The central thrust of Melancholia is thus; life is futile and meaningless where people's lives and problems are inconsequential, holding them up against grand cosmic images only to highlight how trivial they are. Even the film's setting, a stateless and featureless location in which a big empty house rests is indicative of this, personifying themes of loneliness and emptiness. As if adding insult to injury, Von Trier very matter of factly ends the world in such an understated and gentle way as if no one will realise we were ever there. It's all rather jarring just how Melancholia's themes are treated in such an abrasively calm manner. Not that all this matters anyway.

At its core Melancholia is a tale of two sisters, Justine's unravelling proving particularly enthralling to watch. At first seen as a pretty, level-headed young woman, her behaviour gradually becomes more abnormal to the point where she threatens to disrupt the entire wedding reception. Given the allusions to her loving, yet always absent father (Hurt), coupled with a miserable, recalcitrant and unsupportive mother (Rampling) it's not difficult to see why she's so screwed up. Justine suffers from depression, a deliberate pathetic fallacy given that a planetary body named 'Melancholia' is about to smash into the Earth. But unlike in Antichrist, Justine isn't just another one of Von Trier's misogynistic caricatures. Rather, she is clearly troubled in a manner that can only correspond to Von Trier's own dark view on existence. As the planet gets nearer Justine's volatility gives way to serenity, experiencing visions of clarity alluding to a unique universal perspective only she is privy to. While clearly unhinged it is ironically Justine's nihilism which better prepares her for the coming calamity as she emerges from the film as the strongest character. Sister, Claire, is portrayed as order to Justine's chaos, the more rational and bourgeois of the two. It is her conventional approach to life, her belief in established societal 'norms' which cause her to become increasingly agitated when all is threatened. Von Trier fiendishly toys with this premise, taking regular people so convinced in the meaning and purpose of human structures only to shatter them as nothing more than meaningless illusions. Likewise Von Trier takes great pleasure felicitously putting the smug braggart John in his place. It's actually quite absorbing to watch these role reversals, exposing the jejune attitudes considered 'normal' in society. Indeed, Justine comes out of events looking relatively sane compared to everybody else sleepwalking through life with a normalcy bias.

Like all good science fiction, this is a piece which explores humanity and our place in the universe by examining how we react under extreme circumstances. Yes, there are some big sci-fi bloopers here and many will baulk at the scientific plausibility of it all, particularly at how a giant planet inches away from Earth doesn't seem to affect the weather or tides. Indeed, planet Melancholia merely remains a big CGI orb hovering ominously overhead for the most part. But then I suppose that would be to miss the point in that we couldn't be further removed from Roland Emmerich territory here. This is first and foremost a female-focussed melodrama and an apocalyptic destruction movie second. If you came to watch people running around like headless chickens while famous landmarks burn then this won't be for you.

Melancholia is a perturbing film, at peace with ideas of nothingness, the futility of life, that we're alone in the universe, no one is coming to help us, and ultimately mankind's extinction. Wagner is used to excellent effect, syncing perfectly with the mood of the film. Like The Tree of Life, if you're going to do any serious philosophical pondering you cannot feasibly do so unless it's to a score from one of history's greatest classical composers. Anything less epic just wouldn't work. In this way I suppose you could point to similarities between the two, although Melancholia follows a more linear and traditional format. Performances are strong throughout, naturalistic in what almost seems like a fly-on-the wall experience. Dunst is excellent with the material and this should be recognised as her breakthrough performance in much the same way as Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Strange, and yet strangely alluring.