14 October 2012

Movies: Melancholia

Melancholia (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1527186/

Science-fiction(ish) Drama

We first meet newly married and laughing Justine and Michael as their stretch limo tries to navigate a narrow twisty driveway to Justine's sister's house for the wedding reception. At the reception Justine tries to put on a happy face, especially for her sister Claire considering Claire and her husband paid for the wedding and reception. But try as she might, she just can't maintain the facade.
Meanwhile a newly discovered blue planet dubbed Melancholia is approaching Earth on a very close vector. But you won't really find out about that until halfway through the film.

The film basically contrasts Justine and Claire and how the approaching planet impacts those characters as individuals and their relationship.  So it is science-fictiony in that a planet is on a near-miss vector vs. the Earth, but it is more of a drama in that it explores the sister's relationship. I suppose the sister interaction is sortof metaphorical for the planetary one, or vice versa.

Stars Kirsten Dunst (Spiderman's Mary Jane, the cute little vampire Claudia in "Interview with the Vampire") as Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire. We're also treated to the presence of both Stellan Skarsgard (tons of stuff) and his son Alexander Skarsgard (Michael), who most folks will recognize as Eric Northman from HBO's "True Blood". Additional castmembers include John Hurt and Keifer Sutherland. Yes, this film is rather strong in the cast department and benefits greatly from their performances.

I remembered seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Antichrist".  Interestingly enough this film is directed by Lars von Trier, who also directed "Antichrist".  I noticed a lot of stylistic similarities between "Antichrist" and "Melancholia", especially the way dialog scenes are cut sometimes mid-sentence. The sets and visuals, as in "Antichrist", are quite stunning. Actually "Melancholia" is a bit more visually stunning at times, but that is more due to needs of the story.  Thankfully it is also a heck of a lot less visually disturbing than "Antichrist". As in opposite ends of the scale different.

By the film's end I came around to the realization that I enjoyed the film. But boy, that first hour of the film - yeesh.  Not 'yeesh' as in bad, but more 'yeesh' in the sense of slowly dragging along and not having anything to do with the approaching planet. Its existence is hinted at, at best.

The first part is titled "Justine" and we spend the first hour and ten minutes of the film watching Justine's wedding reception and transformation from happy bride to a gal spiraling into mental breakdown.  My wife got bored and quit watching the film because of that whole hour on the reception and nothing involving nor explicitly mentioning an approaching planet, just vague hints.
I think I could have got to the same level of understanding Justine's state-of-mind a lot quicker if that had been edited down to, say, fifteen to twenty minutes, or even skipped altogether. I'm not sure what von Trier was going for with that whole hour spent there, although I do have my suspicions that the viewer is supposed to hold the first part of the film next to the second part and draw analogies and stuff, but for me watching part one got tiring and old fast.  Also, in retrospect, perhaps the familial interplay and nuptial unraveling was all tied in with them knowing a planet is on the way.
Then again, he's making the bucks, I'm not, so what do I know?
I must point out that had this part of the film been cut down we would miss out on some very fine acting from strong actors, even if it is rough to make sense of it. Still, if a section of the film feels like it drags that much I tend to get annoyed.

Regardless, I was determined to finish the film, so I stuck it out. Glad I did.

The second part, titled "Claire", is the meatier part of the story. We see the end product of Justine's meltdown. We now know about and see Melancholia on its Earth-orbit crossing journey. We see the interplay between the sisters and how the planet's approach affects the balance of their relationship.
Aside from the opening sequence before the (seemingly odd and visually out-of-place) title card, the second part of the film has the more stunning visuals. Especially considering during the first part we're basically trapped in a wedding reception.  And for the record by "stunning visuals" I'm not making some leering stealth reference to Justine (Kirsten Dunst) laying naked on the creek bank bathed in the light of Melancholia.

Another thing that niggled at me was how different Justine's accent was from the rest of her family. Her mother, father and sister all had UK accents, whereas Justine had a definite American accent.
I also had trouble with the film's physics involving the approach of Melancholia: it's orbit, it's affects on the Earth, etc. I had a real rough time suspending disbelief where those details were concerned.

Nutshell review: Despite a tortuously long first half and facepalming physics the second half the end result payed off enough to make an enjoyable film. I suspect it is possible to watch only part two of the film if all you want to see is the science-fictiony bits and not feel as if you missed anything. It'll certainly feel like a shorter film. Then again by doing so you don't get the director's vision of the film.

Would I recommend it to others? Not so sure about that. I have no way of predicting someone else's tolerances or preferences, so any sort of recommendation would probably have to be made on an individual basis.  Probably best to not watch if you go stir-crazy watching films that don't have explosions, frenetic action, spaceships, guns, flashing lights, animated characters and whatnot.
I do think my wife would've liked the last hour of the film had she stuck around for it, however all attempts to talk her in to watching it have failed.

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I also have to take a moment to mention I was reminded in some ways of "Another Earth", mostly because that film also dealt with another planet suddenly showing up and approaching Earth and its effects on people and their relationships. Although "Another Earth" went in a wholly different direction story-wise, at least the other planet featured a bit more prominently throughout the film.  Of the two which did I like better? Can't really say, both have their strengths and weaknesses. Plus over nine months have elapsed between seeing "Another Earth" vs. "Melancholia", so my memories of "Another Earth" are somewhat dulled by time. 

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