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Why So Melancholy?

My husband and I watched Melancholia over the weekend, a 2011 film by Lars von Trier.  The story follows two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), during and after Justine is married.  Earth is about to collide with an approaching planet, Melancholia, something John (Kiefer Sutherland) is sure won’t happen, at least in the beginning.  Lars von Trier’s inspiration for writing the story came from a personal episode of depression where he noticed that depressed people tend to remain calm in stressful situations.  The film is shot in two parts, one for each sister.

In part one, titled “Justine,” we see Justin and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive at their wedding reception.  During the evening, Justin is frustrated by her mother’s negative comments and attitude, her pushy boss who incorporates a work assignment into his toast, and criticism from Claire for not enjoying the expensive reception.  Justine sneaks off multiple times and begins to seriously frustrate her family and guests.  Eventually she heads back to her room with Michael where they attempt to be intimate.  Justin brushes him off and ends up having sex with a stranger on the golf course.  At the end of the reception, her new husband leaves her.

In part two, titled “Claire,” Justine comes to live with Claire and John, having fallen into a severe depression and being unable to care for herself.  As Claire struggles to get Justin to eat and bathe, John keeps himself busy by tracking the path of Melancholia, the rogue planet that is believed to fly past Earth without colliding.  Claire is insanely worried and discovers online that the planet will indeed fly by, but will then slingshot back to Earth resulting in a collision.  The fly by comes and goes without incident, but the next day shows Melancholia is indeed approaching Earth head on.  John commits suicide, Claire is hysterical, but Justine remains strangely calm.  She constructs a “magic cave” out of sticks and consoles Claire and her son, Leo, as the planet collides and Earth is no more.

I was interested in seeing Melancholia because I greatly enjoyed Antichrist by Lars von Trier and I greatly enjoy anything Jack Bauer is involved in.  While Antichrist was shocking, sharp, and raw, Melancholia is soft around the edges, flowing seamlessly and maintaining a very artistic vibe throughout the film.  I’ve never been a fan of Kirsten Dunst but she was utterly flawless in the role of Justine, completely selling me on her character without being overly dramatic or insincere.  She demands that the audience understand and sympathize with her depression, even if they don’t quite understand it.

This is not a movie for the viewer who expects suspense and cringe-worthy scenes; Melancholia is slow-paced and dramatic, but hardly secretive on where the story is going and what the final outcome will be.  The focus is on Justine’s emotional journey and the impacts various events have on her.  Her mother, who is obviously a bitter woman and has been her entire life, speaks a few words that Justine is unable to brush off and become a major factor in the wedding reception losing its joy.  The rogue planet’s approach and the end of life on Earth however, is something Justine is able to take in stride; she ends up being the rock for Claire and Leo, bringing strength where Claire can only bring tears and Leo only brings fear.

It was amazing to see Justine’s range of emotions during the wedding reception.  She is overjoyed in the beginning, kissing her husband sweetly and laughing at their predicament when the limo is unable to make a turn in the road and gets stuck, causing them to have to walk to John and Claire’s home and arrive two hours late.  She experiences great sadness as she sees the annoyance her family feels towards her and her mood changes.  There is anger at her pushy employer as he continues to demand she complete an assignment.  She displays great abandon and a consequence-free way of thinking in her sexual activity with the young man she just met and her dismissal of her job.  When her husband chooses to leave her at the end of the night, she seems almost unaffected by it, taking it in stride as her new husband turns his back on her.

If I was aware that the world would be destroyed by this time tomorrow, I would like to think I would make the most of my hours left on this planet.  John takes the easy way out, downing pills that Claire had brought home in her panic earlier and passing away in the barn with the horses.  He ends up missing out on the few hours he had left with his wife and child and leaves the world as a coward.  Claire spends her time frightened and upset, alternating between the two emotions and making herself miserable.  Justine somehow finds a sort of bliss; she isn’t afraid or upset, accepting what will come and smiling as she looks at the end of the world head on.  She may have come up short in the way she dealt with things you and I would find easy, but she came out on top in the end by not wasting her last moments in misery and despair.

I will say that this film isn’t for everyone, but from the little I’ve seen from Lars von Trier, I suspect that can be said about all of his work.  He tells the story in many ways other than simply using dialogue.  The music is important, as is the lighting, the placement of people and objects in the scene, the specific looks on character’s faces, and many other elements that some directors only pay minimal attention to.  I definitely recommend checking Melancholia out; we rented it through Netflix, but Walmart has it for $14.99 and I plan on buying it in the near future.  Even if you hate it, you get to see Kirsten Dunst naked, so it’s not a total loss for those of you who like boobs.  Happy viewing.

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About Jamie C. Baker

“Long time no see. I only pray the caliber of your questions has improved.” - Kevin Smith

Posted on April 9, 2012, in Fear, TV/Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Pretty riveting article. This was a highly entertaining blog. I will come again soon.

  2. I can live with those, what disturb me is the often overly heavy moderating. Stifles the open swap of ideas on themes that by their very nature get emotionally charged. We’re all grow ups here, I think we can handle it.

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