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Von Trier’s Melancholia finds light in a dark, threatened world

December 2011

The end of the world is being portrayed on film more frequently. But I have yet to see an apocalyptic drama that captures the emotional and psychological effects of the knowledge of ultimate doom more oddly and beautifully than Danish director Lars von Trier’s latest cinematic opus, Melancholia.

The film depicts the tumultuous relationship between two sisters in the face of a rogue planet about to collide with and obliterate the Earth. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from chronic depression and strains the patience of her immediate family. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the more grounded of the sisters. She tries desperately to hold Justine’s hand as she ambles catatonically through her wedding preparations.

As the planet Melancholia looms ever closer, her smile becomes less forced and calmer as her loved ones fall to pieces.

Although a film about the ultimate end of humanity tied in with themes of depression and existential ennui doesn’t seem uplifting, von Trier’s work isn’t as morose as one would think. We are treated to moments of almost unbearable dread and despair but sometimes the emotional blackness is tuned to such a ridiculous level that one cannot help but laugh. Charlotte Rampling as the cynical mother is a shocking yet wonderfully relieving source of black comedy.

Structurally, the film is off-kilter. The first half, devoted to Justine’s disastrous wedding, serves to illustrate one thing: Justine is mentally ill. This could have been compressed into one scene. While there were moments that worked to build and heighten the tension of Melancholia’s approach, the first half felt laboured.

The film’s second act moves at a similar pace but thanks to the threat of planetary collision and the film’s unflinching look people’s reactions, it keeps us decidedly more awake.

The performances, particularly from Dunst and Gainsbourg, are uncomfortably real. At times the dialogue is stilted, but the sheer crushing, suffocating weight of chronic depression is portrayed with a level of authenticity that is almost frightening. It feels voyeuristic to watch Justine descend from melancholy to apathy and finally transcendence.

Dunst takes us through this journey with nary a hitch. Gainsbourg plays Claire with an honesty that is refreshing, as we see a sibling who is unable to comprehend her sister’s condition or to help her through it even as she has her own life to lead … though not for long.

While it suffers from an ungainly pace, Melancholia is a beautiful film. It glides like a graceful swan while occasionally bumping into a rock. It manages to find traces of light, in a scenario that seems inescapably dark.

It is as entrancing and as hypnotic as the titular planet and it seems destined to haunt those who see it long after they leave.

Check local theatres for show times.



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