Heavenly Bodies: A new planet crashing to earth is not the only problem facing Kirsten Dunst in the striking
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
It’s unfortunate that Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s painful comments at a Cannes Film Festival press conference this past May almost overshadowed the reception to Melancholia, his fine new film about two sisters and the impending destruction of earth by an incoming planet. At the Cannes press conference, von Trier rambled on and on about wanting to be a Nazi and understanding Hitler as an astonished Kirsten Dunst, the star of Melancholia, looked on next to him. The results of the gaffe are some YouTube clips of the two minute long ordeal racking up thousands of hits, as well as von Trier’s ouster from Cannes, a festival where he had previously won the Palme d’Or for 2000’s Dancer in the Dark and the Jury’s Grand Prize for 1996’s Breaking the Waves.
Melancholia begins with a wedding reception that is just a little less painful to watch than von Trier’s blundering press conference. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, a far cry from his role on HBO’s True Blood as the vampire sheriff Eric Northman) arrive at an opulent castle for a party that was planned by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But, for some unknown reason, the apparently unstable Justine keeps interrupting the festivities to take a bath while she should be cutting the cake, or to drive off in a golf cart and urinate on the golf course. Obviously, the erratic behavior starts to wear on her very tolerant new husband, her sister and, especially, her sister’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Early on, it appears that Claire is almost like a caregiver to Justine, who somewhat resembles the stunningly beautiful but troubled Nicole Diver in the F. Scott Fitzgerald masterpiece Tender Is the Night. Hovering above all this familial tension is a new star that later turns out to be a blue planet called Melancholia, which is headed towards our world.
Melancholia is divided into two halves. The first titled “Justine,” while the latter section, where Melancholia marches slowly towards Earth, is titled “Claire.” The genius of von Trier’s film is that the second act forces you to reconsider the mental state of Justine and reassess which one of the two sisters is really in control.
Dunst, who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress Award for her performance and was a judge for this year’s Big Sur International Short Film Festival at the Henry Miller Library, convincingly captures the emotional states of Justine as she goes from frustratingly impulsive to a near checked-out mental state. It is evident that she has come an impressively long way from the wholesome, less complicated characters she had portrayed earlier in 2000’s Bring It On and the Spider-Man series.
As for von Trier, he has a way of crafting images that will stay with you. Even the film’s opening scene that shows an overstretched limo trying to navigate a twisty road is a visual treat. From there, as this new world comes closer to earth, the director makes our planet seem otherworldly, whether it’s from the blue flare-like planet Melancholia rising with the moon in the night sky or the image of Justine in her wedding dress running through a forest as vines entangle her legs.
Like the other much heralded art house movie of the year, The Tree of Life, Melancholia includes impressive scenes of space yet in this film it’s more justified since a planet is on a collision course with earth. Rather, in some ways, Melancholia, with its mentally questionable protagonist and the possibility of an impending catastrophic event, has more in common with Take Shelter, which just left this area.
As controversial as von Trier can be in his public life, he has repeatedly proven himself as a filmmaker who embraces his psychic pain and puts it out there for all the world to see. In 2009’s Antichrist, Gainsbourg’s “She” maneuvers with Willem Dafoe’s “He” through a fever-dream world of sex and rage following the death of their infant son. In the three-act film subtitled “Grief,” “Pain,” and “Despair,” that despair manifests in sadistic torture She inflicts on He.
While von Trier’s Cannes press conference suggests that he should limit his own time on film, Melancholia provides ample evidence that this Danish filmmaker should continue to stay behind the camera.
MELANCHOLIA (3½) Directed by Lars von Trier. • Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard and Kiefer Sutherland. • R, 136 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.