Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lars Von Trier: Only on Earth (Melancholia)

Kirsten Dust, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia, Magnolia Pictures, 2011.

With his last two pictures, one of the most important directors in the world, Lars Von Trier, has been moving into a new phase of his creative life, pushing out from the epic naturalism/surrealism of his Golden Heart and USA trilogies to challenge himself as a narrative provocateur, a storytelling shaman. The way he shapes images and sounds into miraculous exaltation is alarming to say the least.

In his last feature, Antichrist, he pushed the limits of comfort and decency for himself and the audience in a film that blurred the line between arthouse and horror. At the time it seemed one of his lesser efforts, but as the days bear down, it feels more and more prescient. And so with hoots and hollers comes his metaphysical-psychological genre smasher Melancholia, fresh from the festival rounds. A typically idiosyncratic cast enacts Von Trier's insulated world of depression and entrapment, at an isolated Polanski-esque castle.

What one must understand from the outset is that Von Trier's only concern is getting to the heart, the emotional truth of the matter, by the least traveled way necessary. He only dreams to break the molds. He yearns to tell a story in a way we've never seen before, and in that respect, he is one of the few visionaries populating the international film scene as I write.

With Melancholia, the master has crafted one of his most jarring, fantastic and ultimately beauteous works. An awe-inspiring opening consisting of slo-mo tableaux of scenes to be played out in the film, is unlike anything you've seen before. Classically divided into two chapters, each named for a sister; Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the uptight, middle-aged married sister, on the edge, afraid, trembling to love; Justine (an amazing Kirsten Dunst), the free-spirited, bi-polar younger sister, desperate, alone.

As Von Trier's trademark slice of life home movie camera captures many private moments in them and their families lives over two nights one month apart, first at Justine's disastrous wedding, then on the last night on Earth, we come to know these women as well as we can. And that is partially the point. Von Trier paints such an intensely drawn out portrait of depression as to have given the film its title alone. Dunst and Gainsbourg both surpass the limits of emotional control in their flawlessly fractured performances as the two unbalanced sisters at the eye of the storm. 

Von Trier utilizes the Sci-fi element as he did with horror in Antichrist. As a vessel to communicate the wonder that is within and without ourselves. The planet Melancholia's collision course with Earth is illustrated in a subtly dread inducing style which borders on the marvelous, ultimately the sublime. Von Trier's vision is grand and dark, as his brilliant use of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde reflects, building all of the naturalistically eerie melodrama to an apocalyptic vision of a climax. The complexity of humanity and the wonders of the universe are only on earth, where a mortal can shape the way we think about art.

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