The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"MELANCHOLIA"

Melancholia
It's the end of the world as we know it, and Kirsten Dunst feels not-so-fine.

If I wanted to be glib, I could describe Melancholia as a cross between Rachel Getting Married and Armageddon. But to do that would be to completely dismiss the astuteness and power of this drama from director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist). It is a story about depression, told from the viewpoint of a young bride struggling to overcome it on her wedding day, while a recently-discovered planet races toward an imminent collision with Earth.

Kirsten Dunst plays the bride, Justine. The opening scenes with her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) find her seemingly happy. When they arrive at the reception, being held at the estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), it becomes clear that she's merely been faking it. Justine is not happy at all. As interactions gradually unfold, we realize two things: 1.) she's been deeply depressed for a long time; and 2.) her loved ones are tired of dealing with it. Everyone, including her divorced parents (played by Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt), tries to badger Justine into cheering up. This has the opposite intended effect, which only causes their resentments toward her to grow. Eventually, her depression wins out, causing the entire day to be ruined.

Justine ends up staying with Claire and John. She's in such a depressed state that all she does is stay in bed and cry. She cannot even get into the bathtub without assistance. Then word comes that a planet called Melancholia may not, as predicted, miss hitting the Earth. It is here that an interesting thing happens: Justine, seemingly aware that her suffering is about to end, improves, while the judgmental Claire begins to understand for the first time what it feels like to experience an inescapable sensation of hopelessness.

Lars von Trier has spoken openly about his own struggles with depression, and that familiarity comes across on screen. This is one of the best films on the subject I've ever seen. It makes you feel the crushing weight of Justine's sadness, her inability to make it go away. Wisely, von Trier has cast Kirsten Dunst, an actress who's had her own public battles with depression. Her performance which surpasses anything she's ever done before is astonishing. She knows what Justine is going through and brings that devastating loss-of-self to life in an authentic, painful way. I'd even suggest that what she does is more than acting; it's channeling. Acting suggests artifice. What Dunst brings to Melancholia is in no way artificial. There is great truth in her work. Dunst won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for this performance. I would not be surprised to find her nominated for an Oscar as well.

The movie is gorgeous to look at. You're not likely to see anything more visually arresting this year than the first six minutes, which present a series of nearly-static shots that suggest the fallout to come. Von Trier stages the potential destruction of Earth in a striking manner. The closer catastrophe comes, the more beautiful Melancholia looks. And try not to be haunted for days by the final shot. Buried inside all the carefully-composed imagery is a startling sense of nihilism. The end, von Trier seems to be saying, will be a welcome release from the gloom and misery of life. Whether you agree with that or not (and I'm far more optimistic about what lies beyond than he is), it makes for a film that gets under your skin.

Melancholia has a little trouble transitioning from the first half, which is all about Justine's depression, to the second half, which incorporates the whole planet collision idea. It feels a bit abrupt. I also think the 135-minute running time is a bit too long. Nonetheless, this is a masterfully-made, superbly-acted movie with admirably big ideas to explore. Melancholia presents a number of dramatically and emotionally compelling themes: depression can cripple the human spirit; people who have never gone through a depression don't understand what it feels like; when you go through a bout of depression for the first time (as Claire does), the experience is terrifying in its uncertainty; and, most crucially, when you've been too depressed for too long, it can feel like the world really is going to come to an end.

( 1/2 out of four)


Melancholia is rated R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.


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