Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review - Melancholia

And I'm Feeling Blue

How does one review a Lars von Trier film? The man's work is almost immune to traditional criticism - even within individual films, the tone, content and quality can dramatically shift. And, these days, it's increasingly difficult to separate the art from the artist. At a rough estimate (note: not scientifically tested) 99.9% of reviews of Melancholia have referenced his infamous, stupid Hitler gaffe. You can now add this review to that overwhelming majority.

I'll admit that, generally speaking, I do tend to enjoy the work of von Trier for one main reason: he always tries something different, and the results are always interesting if not entirely successful. There are some films I truly like (if 'like' is the appropriate word): Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots or Manderlay. There are others I admire on general principle, but can't say I entirely enjoyed my time with: Dogville or Europa. And there's at least one I actively disliked despite the odd burst of insight or invention: specifically Antichrist.  Melancholia, to cut to the chase, is in the middle category. Interesting, yet flawed.

It's not a significant spoiler to say this is von Trier's take on the apocalypse film. Indeed, the film opens with hyper-stylised, slow-motion images of the end of the world. If anyone has seen the haunting (although somewhat naff) black & white opening of Antichrist, this is similar territory, although with a bit of effects work an over-indulgence of colour these scenes probably work better. Anyway, apocalypse well and truly now, the film jumps back in time and focuses on two different stories. We first observe the wedding party of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), being held in the vast country estate of her wealthy brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). In the midst of a crippling depression, she fakes a smile for her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and the party guests (a variety of acting powerhouses). But as the night wears on, the bride finds it harder to keep her veil of happiness in check. In part two, set some undefined time after the wedding, the focus is on Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine is brought to the estate to help her get over another physically exhausting mental health episode. Claire, meanwhile, worries about the news reports that a planet, Melancholia, is one a collision course with Earth. John - an amateur astronomer - assures her everything will be fine. Yet as the planet draws closer, he grows less certain of himself, and Claire's anxiety escalates. In contrast, Justine slowly seems to grow more accepting of the oncoming apocalypse...

This is very much a film of two halves. The first is certainly superior. It plays out like a riff and homage to von Trier's dogma-mate Thomas Vinterberg's classic Festen.  A stunning ensemble cast drives the slow burning drama towards breaking point - John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard and a very funny Udo Kier as a frustrated wedding planner are amongst the party guests each compellingly experiencing their own personal melancholy. However, it really is Dunst who holds everything together. Having never really been given the opportunity to flex her dramatic muscles before, she genuinely feels like a discovery here despite being one of Hollywood's most recognisable faces. Von Trier isn't in a hurry to get anywhere, but there are enough interesting ideas and revelations to keep the viewer interested while they await the inevitable doomsday. It's not perfect - Justine's motivations sometimes seem determined by narrative necessity rather than credibility or logic - but it's mostly good stuff.

The second half, however, is comparatively overstretched. Abandoning the vast majority of the cast, it's instantly disappointing to leave such curious characters. It's like the first half is a long tease by von Trier - introducing interesting stories but leaving them behind when there's still life left in 'em. It's not like the acting in part two is bad - Dunst is still great, Gainsbourg fantastic as always, and Sutherland has some great moments. But, thematically and narratively, Melancholia feels more repetitive in part two. The first had all the characters experiencing very different and very subtle inner turmoil. With the cast reduced, it's harder to remain interested. The same beats are hit time and time again during Claire and Justine's story, and while the imminent apocalypse does keep things relatively engaging, there are few emotional payoffs.

That said, the film concludes with an absolutely stunning effects shot that will linger long after the cut to black. Cinematography wise, this is an arresting mix of handheld naturalism and stunning apocalyptic fantasy (while arguably too on-the-nose, the regularly blue tinted visuals work really well). And acting wise, it's impossible to fault. But the story is overlong at over 130 minutes, and the rewards only come after struggling through numerous sluggish sequences. It is, admirably, less excessive and confrontational than your typical von Trier vehicle (if still not traditionally 'accessible'). Yet, typically of the man, the mixed success of Melancholia make this very distinctly the work of cinema's most divisive auteur (not too mention predictably strong female characterisation). A reminder that he's always going to be a more interesting film-maker than comedian.

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