MOVIE REVIEW: Melancholia

MELANCHOLIA-- 2 STARS

This past June, I wrote a scathing review of Terrance Malick's critical darling The Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt.  It got my lowest review of the year thus far (it's a good thing I refuse to see Jack & Jill).  I was duped and sold by the many critic reviews hailing it as art above cinemas and the 84% "Tomatometer" score on Rotten Tomatoes.  After making a special trip into the city to see it, all I got was nearly three disappointing hours of "what the hell?!" that I should have walked out on.

As a guy with an above-average mind for cinema, I "got" what Malick was up to and respected the effort, but didn't see the point... at all.  While movies are art, it takes more than art to make a movie.  In all of the buzz leading up to Melancholia, the new science-fiction drama from noted Dutch artisan Lars Von TrierI feared the worst.  The ingredients of a talented name cast, acting depth, and cosmic musings that surround an eccentric family of depression made me expect The Tree of Life 2.  Instead of repeating my mistake, I played it safe and watched Melancholia on Amazon Video On-Demand.  While it's still playing in theaters, for $6.99, it can be viewed as two-day theatrical rental, with the hopes of increased its audience and access (Tower Heist nearly did the same thing two weeks ago).

Melancholia is not your your typical science-fiction drama or even a typical family drama.  With Von Trier and his track record (EuropaDogville, Antichrist), we shouldn't be surprised.  It's essentially a wedding movie about two very different, yet equally damaged sisters, but it has a lot more going on.  What's going on exactly?  Well, it's a little foggy and full of issues.

The film opens with a striking, yet off-kilter, extreme slow-motion pre-credits montage of imagery boldly set to the sumptuous operatic music of Richard Wagner's Tristan & Isolde.  We see our soon-to-be-introduced golf course estate wedding setting, mixed with images of art, surrounding nature, dying wildlife, the destructive cosmos bearing down on Earth, and our soon-to-be introduced characters in various movements and scenarios.  Did we just get the whole movie in under fifteen minutes (kind of like that Tree of Life poster and trailer I joked about)?  Did we just watch someone's dream or are these crawling scenes previews of events yet to unfold?  That's the point of both initiative and uncertainty for Melancholia.  After that opening, either you want to know where it's all coming from and motioning to or it moves so slow and randomly that you are instantly confused and disconnected.

What follows for the next two hours meanders to some of what you see.  Melancholia is split into two titled halves named after a pair of sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, a long way from Spider-Man and Bring It On) and Claire (Von Trier veteran collaborator Charlotte Gainsbourg).  It's Justine's lavish wedding day and she is arriving with her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard of True Blood) to the decadent reception thrown by Claire's husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland, in a nice change of pace from shouting "Dammit!" on 24), and her boss, Jack (Stellen Skarsgard, Alexander's real-life father), who is also Michael's best man.  Everything looks perfect until Justine's underlying depression begins to take over after her divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) make a belittling and embarrassing scene during their toasts.  At various points in the evening (four, for those of you keeping score at home), she oddly slinks away from the reception to escape the suffocating situation.  This causes Claire to constantly chase her down and wrangle her psyche back into the night at hand.

After the wedding, the story switches to Claire's point-of-view and we soon learn details of a gigantic previously unseen rogue planet, intriguingly named Melancholia, that is charted to make a near pass by Earth.  The news excites John who relishes the chance to witness such a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event.  Justine is ambivalently at peace and drawn to the possibility of disaster and further slips away.  Claire, however, is extremely frightened by the growing risk that Melancholia represents in the sky.  That sets off her own brand of madness and depression and paces us to the climatic finish.

If I can give Melancholia the greatest of compliments I can, it is that it's at least a little better than The Tree of Life for holding my attention and nerves.  The film is just as out-there, implausible, poetic, depressing, and maddeningly paced as Malick's work, but at least is has a sense of direction and an ending.  Melancholia didn't just cop out with ambiguity and weirdness like The Tree of Life.  To paraphrase Bill Murray from Caddyshack, "it's got that going for it."  However, despite impressive performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg, Melancholia can't help but cause disconnect.  Science-fiction mixed with a very random society wedding just don't mix.  I get that Melancholia is not supposed to be a chipper movie about beating depression.  Like with The Tree of Life, I can see the art and I can respect the effort, but I just don't see the point.

LESSON #1: OUR FASCINATION WITH WITNESSING DESTRUCTION-- We all can relate to this on some level.  Whether it's the old adage of "you can't take your eyes off of a train wreck," anticipating a precarious situation involving people falling, admiring a fire or explosion, watching a replay of a big hit during football, or rooting for epic fails during American Idol auditions or an episode of Wipeout, we are all a little fascinated with destruction and calamity.  We all want to bear witness.

LESSON #2: THE DIFFERENT MANIFESTATIONS OF DEPRESSION AND MADNESS-- Writer-director Lars Von Trier himself is a victim of depression and came up with the idea for Melancholia during his own therapy sessions.  If that's the case, he needs more than a few hugs.  Jokes aside, he crafts two different scales of depression and madness through Justine and Claire that are pretty unique and rival Jodie Foster's creation of the Mel Gibson character in The Beaver from earlier this year.  Like Black Swan last year, depression and madness are different for each cause in terms of catalysts, diffusion, and expression.

LESSON #3: THE EMOTIONS THAT OCCUR WHEN WE FACE OUR MORTALITY-- None of us know when we are going to die or how it is going to happen.  We all like to hope that, when that time comes (or if our paranoia thinks it's coming), we've made our peace with mortality and will face death with courage and dignity, without fear or anxiety taking over.  Imagine if we knew and then multiply that by the entire world in peril and you have Melancholia.