Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“Melancholia” crushes planets, spirits

“Melancholia” is Lars von Trier’s most mainstream film, but that’s not saying much. Following his 2009 genital-chopping bonanza “Antichrist,” anything without onscreen bloody ejaculate would appear conventional. “Melancholia” attempts to keep its art house inclinations hidden behind powerful acting and an apocalypse plot. After the first 10 minutes of slow motion symbolic landscapes, the film becomes almost passable as a standard drama. But von Trier’s instincts to indulge in the abstract still lurk, with mixed results.

“Melancholia” follows sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (former von Trier victim Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they cope with a doomed wedding, soon followed by a doomed planet. That massive planet, named Melancholia (subtlety is not von Trier’s strength) is hurtling toward our own planet Earth, on a collision course to end life as we know it.

But first, we are taken back in time, where Melancholia’s imminent approach is still an internet conspiracy theory. Justine is cripplingly depressed while Claire attempts to care for her. Both von Trier and Dunst have admitted to suffering from depression, which explains the painful realism of the film’s depiction thereof. The most powerful and visceral parts of this film surround Justine’s illness. She cannot move from her bed, she collapses naked to the floor in front of the bathtub and favorite foods taste like ash. Claire dutifully and futilely serves as her nurse despite the complaints of her rich husband, played by Donald Sutherland.

“Melancholia” serves in part as proof that von Trier does not hate women as much as his previous films may suggest. While the main female characters feel fully developed and real, Sutherland’s character feels two-dimensional despite a strong acting performance. He is whiny and judgmental, ignoring his wife’s concerns about the planet Melancholia. He is unsympathetic, and his unfortunate end is predictable.

Justine’s husband-for-a-night Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), is sweet, loving and ultimately just as unbelievable as Sutherland’s character. His decision to leave Justine after their disastrous wedding reception is confusing. He at first behaves like he will love her through anything, but then splits after their (admittedly rough) wedding night. An astoundingly poor display of foresight, it seems. But ultimately these male characters serve as plot points in the women’s stories, as opposed to fully realized people. Female characters often fill the flat roles of plot points in movies. Thus, “Melancholia” is refreshing in the unique failures of its characterizations.

Much noise will be made about Dunst’s performance come awards season, and rightfully so. Moviegoers with the “Spiderman” trilogy as their only point of reference will be surprised by her subtle yet heartbreaking achievement. Just as powerful is Gainsbourg, playing a far more sympathetic role than that of the scissor-happy wife in “Antichrist.” Gainsbourg’s physical features clash with Hollywood’s typical aesthetics, but she looks beautiful in planet Melancholia’s foreboding blue light. Despite their total lack of physical resemblance, Gainsbourg and Dunst’s sisterhood feels authentic and strong. While the rest of the movie suffers from some glaring indulgences on von Trier’s part, the acting is nearly flawless.

Von Trier’s greatest weakness lies in his obsession with his art. If he finds it beautiful, it ends up in the film. Such is the curse of the auteur. “Melancholia” features one piece of music, played over and over again for the entire soundtrack. Richard Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan und Isolde” might have fit some scenes, but it is silly in many places, and distracts from some of the more emotionally resonant spots.

There is one scene of Gainsbourg watching Dunst lying naked under Melancholia’s light that is a love poem to Dunst’s body, but is totally out of place with the rest of the film. With a little self-editing, von Trier could be making seamless works of art, but that almost seems beside the point. He opts for personal joy over critical appreciation, and it’s hard not to commend him for it.

“Melancholia” is not for everyone. It’s mainstream in the sense that it has a straightforward, understandable plot, comprehensive visuals and relatable characters, but art house leaks through, especially in the cinematography and pacing. It moves like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and looks like a dream world. There are moments where pretention-wary viewers will laugh out loud. For instance, the science half of the film’s science fiction doesn’t begin to hold up. And for the emotionally sensitive, or those who have dealt with depression, “Melancholia” is a crier, or maybe even a bawler – a cannot-stifle-the-sobs tissue-guzzling weep-fest. Then again, for others, it will be an absurd comedy. It is a highly subjective piece (like most of von Trier’s work), and is worth seeing if only to discuss it.

“Melancholia” starts with a long shot of the earth meeting its demise, crushing against the weight of a bigger ball of rock. It ends with the same event, as experienced on the ground, with characters we care for waiting to die. The film tussles with philosophical notions of humanity, our place in the universe, the value of life and the importance of connection, but it finds those discussions ultimately irrelevant. Our world, like everything else, will someday end. Von Trier wants to ask what’s worth living for, even when it’s ultimately clear that he doesn’t know the answers himself. This is exactly the revelation reached in “Antichrist,” where the world was shown to be an evil, hateful place. In “Melancholia,” his outlook is still bleak, but there are hints of hope. It seems for now that von Trier has decided life is worth living, even if only to see the end.

Victoria Knobloch can be reached at [email protected].


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  • B

    boooMay 22, 2016 at 5:02 am

    This the worst interpretation of Melancholia I’ve read (so don’t worry I am sure there are even worse amatuer reviews, like a high school paper review.

    And by the way, its KEIFER not Donald for Claire’s husband.