Thursday, 5 April 2012

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011)

Lars Von Trier's Melancholia delivers what one would expect from such a title while offering so much more in a perfectly personal vision of deep depression. The director who has battled with depression in the past used filmmaking as a tool to combat his condition and here uses the medium to paint a fearless picture of some of the intense anxieties. Kirsten Dunst was cast as the central character due to her similar dealings with depression. What transpires is a bleak drama about familial disfunction and a painfully honest depiction of the destructive nature of depression. It's both just as bombastic as you'd expect from Lars Von Trier film but it's also his most relatable.

Similarly to the 2009 shock-fest Antichrist, Melancholia begins with a prologue of luxuriously captured slow motion. These dreamlike moments are mostly abstract and surrealistic such as main star Kirsten Dunst dragging the forest behind her in a wedding dress as well as producing electricity from her finger tips. with this and his previous film as a reminder, anything can happen with Lars Von Trier at the helm. These eerie and seemingly unconnected montage will eventually make sense.

 As this opening montage continues the music of Wagner swelters and we're shown two planets colliding  - one presumably our own. The music is perfectly in keeping with the film's title and theme; all the images shown to us are distressing in some way not least the apocalypse itself, yet although the music is dramatic and thoroughly sad it also contains a sense of triumph. These scenes of sadness, distress, and loss are romanticised and as we get to know Kirsten Dunst's character this also begins to make sense. 

The film then jump starts with Julia (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) as newly weds arriving extremely late to their wedding party held in a lavish countryside manor house. Lars Von Trier's directorial approach has frustrated many over the years and after the slow motion dreamlike images of the film's opening it then plunges into another familiar territory - handheld camera. A technique that Von Trier has utilised in most of his career and an approach over used in cinema these days. This approach works beautifully in creating exactly the right atmosphere as we're flung into the madness of this broken family; the camera works as a fly on the wall, an omniscient family video that knows no boundaries.

It's not long before we discover Julia and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) have a fragmented difficult relationship but are soon overshadowed or rather camouflaged by the problems the rest of the hive have. This is most notable in the sister's parents played as brilliantly as you'd expect from John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling - the loathing they have for one another is painful and is made almost bearable by the comical manor in which Hurt plays his part. With the direction and performances pitch perfect it's a joyously torturous occasion to behold.

Melancholia splits it's narrative concerns in half with the first dedicated almost entirely with Julia. later it becomes fixated on Claire and her dealings with her troubled sibling. In almost no time at all its plain to see that Julia is an erratic personality that borders dangerously on the morose. When the party has come to a close Julia has managed to fall out out with just about everyone but stays with her sister (as it turns out the mansion belongs to her and husband Kiefer Sutherland). This is where the film flips and we follow Claire as she cares for her depressed sister in the aftermath of the party, in one shocking scene Claire is trying to get her sister to bathe but Julia is so overwhelmed she can't even muster the will to raise a leg. Suddenly the image of her dragging the forest with her resonates and perfectly illustrates the suppressive force dragging her down.

While Julia's condition worsens and wavers, the concerning plot of Earth's destruction is raised once again. Despite never leaving the mansion we gather that the media has named the approaching plant 'Melancholia' and reports scientists believe the planet will miss Earth. Claire's husband John is one of the scientists that believe this, his optimistic outlook on survival and the thoughts of Melancholia's near collision often treads on near fetishism. The only other person who isn't worried about the chances of mankind's destruction is Julia who is just plain indifferent to life, she sees beauty in the extinguishing of life over its survival. In another shocking scene Claire follows Julia as she's spotted walking off into the night, what she observes is her sister naked down by the river caressing her body in the light of the approaching planet's light.

When news of Melancholia's near miss is revealed all apart from Julia are overjoyed, except that the planet soon returns. This is a strange plot trajectory as much as the planet's movement itself but one which is explained when understanding Julia's character - when understanding people with server depression. When at her lowest Julia wants nothing more than the destruction of life, she can't see the sun through the dark storm that clouds her mind - it isn't ridiculous within the world of Melancholia to say it is in fact Julia bringing about the apocalypse with her magnetism for Melancholia the planet.

Melancholia is a tragically revealing film and one which must be awarded with merit. As each case of depression is surely a subjective one, perhaps other sufferers will find it un-inspired or ill judged. As this may be the case it can't be denied that the film shows a genuine truth, Von Trier's truth. It can only be hoped that many find Melancholia an enriching experience if only for the notion of being understood, that somebody else feels the same intense negativity at the hands of a common illness. What great reminder of the power of cinema, a medium in which we can show taboo issues or feelings that we seldom say to each other - a powerful tool for reaching out - needed now more than ever, even in our ever expansive world of communications.

Kirsten Dunst acts on a level we've never seen her operate on, showing how right she was to win at Cannes for this raw piece of work. All supporting cast are exceptional and each have their moments to shine despite it being Dunst's show. Von Trier showcases some extraordinary visuals as well as some stripped back examples too, this is his perhaps his most personal and relatable film but finding an audience will be just as tricky from one of the most difficult and controversial directors working today.