Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why See This...Melancholia [2011]

   Our culture seems to have embraced the idea of an apocalypse, if merely for our own entertainment.  Society's growing interest in this topic is seen on various TV shows such as History Channel’s Life After People and AMC’s hit series, The Walking Dead.  But the fascination is neither new nor solely a media craze.  Robert Frost gives us his own brief take on the apocalypse in his poem "Fire and Ice" in 1923 and we are all aware of the ancient Mayan’s prediction falling on the date of  December 21 of this year that has yet to be tested.  And of course, who could forget the rapture that was supposed to destroy the earth last May?
      But whether it’s a cosmic explosion, a global zombie-infecting virus or the result of some ancient Mayan voodoo, one edition that serves up the world’s end in an idyllic gambol is Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia.  Not one to shy away from controversy from his ramble sympathizing with Hitler at Canneshis new tattoo and to his last feature, the 2009 film, Antichrist, few could ignore talks of him directing an apocalyptic tale.
      And that’s what this film is- another rendition of the end of the world.  But under the creative control of Lars von Trier, it sets itself apart from any other apocalyptic piece.  Melancholia, which serves as the film's title, is a distant planet in outer space that scientists believe will collide with earth within the next few days. The film opens with a harrowing sequence of slow moving frames.  In each one, we see the film’s main character, Justine, given an award-winning performance by Kirsten Dunst (winning Best Actress at Cannes), and in them all there lies a look of despair and agony on her face.  In one, she is seen wearing a wedding gown running through a forest whose branches and vines grasp hold of her feet.  In another, she is again running but this time her captor comes in the form of a lush green prairie in which a step down proves to be quicksand, again leaving her with a similar fate.  All within the orchestral backdrop of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde giving the film an unnaturally eerie yet majestic tone.  With this ill fated montage, von Trier chooses to hint towards the fate of these characters before ever receiving an introduction. 
      The film’s action opens at Justine’s wedding at a massive castle.  She and her newlywed husband are late arrivals to their own wedding party, much to the dismay of their guests.  But the couple does not seem anxious or eager to attend. Instead, they display affectionate laughs toward each other in their limo as if unaware of their untimely arrival.  From the point of their late entrance, the merry expression on Justine’s face is absent the remainder of the film.  A far planet named Melancholia, which serves as the film’s title, is quickly approaching the earth’s orbit and much like our own Rapture, it’s caused a mix of emotions and scientific tests to try and decide if it will hit our planet, ending it all.  Melancholia, without coincidence I assume, seems to be the cause of Justine’s depressed state during her own wedding.  The idea of the end is too unbearable for her, yet she seems to be the only one attuned to this fear as the party’s guests continue on with pleasure while she partakes in her solitary anguish
      Melancholia's focus, then, is on the remaining days as played out by Justine, her sister Claire and Claire’s husband and young son.  It serves to be quite emotional as we sit and wait for their world’s end, watching these characters reconcile with this stark reality before then from our safe position as the film’s audience.  But what’s before them, an end not entirely certain provides excitement for the husband and son as they abide to discussions of a safe passing of Melancholia just outside the earth’s orbit. For them, it will provide a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of interstellar beauty. 
      Not to give away any details unknown, the film’s final scene, which includes the world’s end, provides an image more fascinating than menacing- no fire, no ice, no zombies.  While destructive in nature, Lars von Trier‘s finale turns the apocalypse’s destructive nature into something more beautiful- it ends as it all started with a bang.  But in his view, the bang is more than a split second; he draws out the earth’s final moments with a symphonic score that matches the powerful imagery of our world coming to an end. 
      Before seeing the film, one must understand the directing of Lars von Trier.  In 1995, he wrote a piece called the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” which called for a return to the traditional means of film production, excluding much of the elaborate tricks used by studios today.  For that matter, most of the shots of Melancholia consist of nothing more than the director himself and a handheld camera, resulting in constantly shaking frames for the film’s entire running time.   Combined with his controversial themes, many tend to discredit von Trier’s filmmaking abilities, but to look past these “technical blemishes” is to experience a splendid and thought provoking film of another yet masterful take on the end of the world.

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