"I didn't expect this wedding to be so wet, but at least I look…
**** (out of four)
The stunningly beautiful, remarkably powerful film from writer-director Lars Von Trier bears plenty in common with “The Tree of Life,” if “Tree” were an extraordinary vision of flawed human behavior in the context of a fragile world. You know, rather than a repetitive rumination on how pretty trees are and how much kids are—thanks, Capt. Obvious—influenced by their parents.
As “Melancholia” opens, Von Trier presents gorgeous images of people like Justine (Kirsten Dunst, excellent) and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they recognize that the world is about to end, followed by a shot from outer space as a massive planet consumes Earth.
Then, once we’re all in, uh, such a good mood, Von Trier jumps back to Justine’s wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), which gets off to a bad start (stretch limos just aren’t adept at navigating tight turns) and only gets worse as Justine’s depression sours their reception. (Heads-up, future brides: Driving a golf cart away from your wedding, and later taking a bath during your own party, don’t help maintain a jovial atmosphere.)
“Part Two” of the film focuses on Claire, who’s pretty freaked about the approaching planet, Melancholia, even though her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) assures her that the gigantic orb in the sky will pass by Earth.
Von Trier (“Antichrist”), who has battled depression himself, isn’t known for being a happy guy. “Melancholia” certainly isn’t a happy movie. Yet where “The Tree of Life” felt like a superficial examination of the universe, “Melancholia” boldly addresses the triviality of wealth and petty bickering while acknowledging the twinkling beauty of pure joy—even as it’s viewed against the impending doom of emotional freefall and worse.
Terrence Malick used “Tree of Life” to again remind us just how lovely he finds nature and how detached he feels from the complex details of his characters’ lives. Von Trier establishes time and place for a specific reason and watches with fascination as people clash with themselves and a situation they no longer control. And while a remote estate provides plenty of opportunities to assert the wonder of stuff like grass and horses, Von Trier considers these as part of the experience on Earth without becoming so distracted by their glory that he suggests people are unimportant by comparison. Rather, beauty is juxtaposed with terror, and happiness with sorrow.
Earlier this year “The Beaver” recognized the hopelessness of depression and the lack of easy answers to make things better. “Melancholia” does that film one better in depicting the misunderstanding about depression from the outside and the spectrum of power and weakness people can navigate every day.
Von Trier suggests that the world is full of things, people and behavior that we don’t understand. When everything goes black and we look back on the bright spots and the misery, how will we answer this question: “Was it all worth it?”
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