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To say that Lars Von Trier is a polarizing director is like saying smoking cigarettes are bad for you: it's a fundamental fact. An experimental Danish filmmaker that LOVES to push buttons in both his films and his endlessly entertaining interviews, Von Trier has been creating critically divisive films since the late 1970s. You can always tell you're reading a review of a Von Trier film because critics will break out their biggest and fanciest words to either praise him or decry him, a lot of these reviews often turning into miniature theses that you just might need a dictionary to decipher.
After several little known releases, Von Trier really put himself on the map with 1996's Breaking The Waves, which served as his introduction to a larger portion of the film viewing world, including myself. Personally, I was spellbound by his SHARPLY unique visual style and deep storytelling, while at the same time finding the film very accessible compared to a lot of the foreign films I'd seen up to that point. Really, Breaking The Waves is solely responsible for opening my tastes up and getting me interested in films deeper than ones such as Star Wars or Horror Franchise #8,409.
Von Trier likes to make his films into trilogies, but based about themes instead of a continuing storyline. He started with his “Europe” trilogy detailing Europe's dark history, then followed it up with the “Golden Heart” trilogy, which was launched by Breaking The Waves and showed us three women with kind hearts being put into awful circumstances. His next trilogy, “USA: Land of Opportunities” remains unfinished as the third film, Wasington, will likely not get made at this point but one can always hope.
His latest trilogy is “Depression”, which consists of today's film along with Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. His most personal group of films, these deal with the effects of depression (duh) and are based around a lot of his life experiences as he suffers from crippling depression at times. These have also been BY FAR his most controversial films, which is quite the achievement given his filmography of increasingly controversial films. His work has always featured explicit images with a heavy focus on sexuality, but the Depression trilogy kicked these elements into hyperdrive.
Melancholia is definitely the most tame of the trilogy, as I've always gotten the impression this is Von Trier's most personal film to date and he really wanted to convey the effects of depression without having it be distracted by anything else. This is easily one of my favourite films of recent years and I've seen it on multiple occasions, each time finding something new to think about for weeks afterward. So without any further ado, I present A Ghoul Versus Melancholia!
We open with a very sullen looking Kirsten Dunst staring directly at us as the very haunting score from the prelude to Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde plays. Dead birds rain down from the sky behind her. The entire scene is shot in ultra slow motion that would make Zack Snyder jealous as we see multiple images flash by. We see the painting “Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Breughel, in which we see dead leaves falling upon the eponymous hunters. This painting was also used in acclaimed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's films Solaris and the Mirror, Von Trier being a HUGE fan of his fellow director.
The next shot is arguably one of the most important in the movie, as we see actress Charlotte Gainsbourg carrying the young son of her character Claire across a golf course. In the background a flag informs us she's on the 19th hole. Remember this for later, there might be a quiz. The next shot is of a black horse falling to the ground, followed by Dunst and more dead birds. Next is Dunst, Gainsbourg, and the boy all in formal attire, Dunst now wearing a wedding dress.
This switches to a shot of Dunst in a black shirt, holding up her hands and watching small bolts of lightning shoot out of her finger tips. Of all the scenes in the film, this has always been the most incomprehensible to me. Dunst is back to the wedding dress as she runs across the golf course, or rather tries to as strange gray vines are wrapped around her legs and impeding her. The final shot is of Melancholia, the planet the movie is named after, violently slamming into the Earth. This was a gorgeous opening, one of the most striking I've ever seen and was GREATLY enhanced by the score.
The film begins properly with a title card that says “Part One: Justine”, as we meet Dunst's character Justine on what is ostensibly the happiest day of her life. She's just gotten married and is being driven in a limo to her reception along with her hunky husband Michael, played by the dashing Alexander Skarsgard. One problem though: their limo driver is THE WORST DRIVER IN HISTORY. We see he must have learned everything he knows from Austin Powers as he gets them stuck on a narrow road, Michael and Justine forced to take the wheel personally to get to their reception.
Because of this tomfoolery, they arrive two hours late at the reception, which is being held on the ULTRA LAVISH estate of Justine's sister Claire and her new brother-in-law John. John is played by Kiefer Sutherland, and he is awesome as ever in the role. He has this thinly veiled contempt for Claire's family that is just SEETHING, for reasons we'll soon see why. Claire and John both bitch out the newlyweds for being so late, but Justine is more interested in a red star in the sky. John, who is some kind of multimillionaire scientist or something, tells her it's the star Antares.
Before entering the mansion, Justine takes Michael to the stables to see her horse Abraham, the same horse from the opening. Inside, we're introduced to the most expensive wedding planner in the world, played by the epically creepy Udo Kier. Kier has been in nearly all of Von Trier's movies, as well as pretty much every movie ever as his filmography boasts over 200 roles. It's surreal to see him play a role where he isn't torturing or killing someone, but really there's nothing he can't do. He is quite upset at the newlyweds wrecking his carefully orchestrated ceremony, but handles it with professionalism.
At the front of the house at the sign in table there's a jar of beans where each guest tries to guess how many are in there to win a prize, Justine ignoring it as she enters the main hall. We meet Justine's parents, Dexter and Gaby. Dexter is played by the incredible John Hurt of- geez, you name it. He's been in so many memorable films, Alien, Midnight Express, Rob Roy, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull- YIKES! Alright, moving on... Gaby is played by Charlotte Rampling- huh, that's weird. Charlotte Rampling is playing a character that has to deal with a guy named Dexter? Where have I seen that before? Oh right, the Dexter's final season reviews I never got around to finishing because those episodes ARE HORRIBLE.
We get a brief glimpse of what life must have been like being raised by these two as Dexter is only interested in flirting with anything wearing a dress while Gaby is a stone cold bitch that skipped the wedding and then gives a toast saying how much she hates marriage, especially when it related to her daughters. Justine's boss Jack, whom she works for as a copy writer for his advertising company, also gives a toast that he segues into wanting her to write a new tag line TONIGHT for his latest modeling campaign. Well, this is going to be an interesting party to say the least. Jack is played by Stellan Skarsgard, who, in addition to being Alexander's father, is another actor that Von Trier loves to use in his films. Stellar is ANOTHER endlessly great actor in this film's all-star cast, and he just nails down the asshole boss character here.
The effect of these events on Justine is almost immediate, as her joy begins to plummet. Claire pulls her into a room and warns about not making a scene, which pisses me off because this is a wedding and I want to see someone thrown into the wedding cake dammit! Justine goes outside and takes a golf cart for a ride around the course, gazing at Antares the entire time. She also stops to relieve herself in the grass, because she's classy like that.
When she returns to the reception, we see her absence has not gone unnoticed. The night gets more and more awkward as her mood worsens, irritating the guests more and more. Leo, Claire's young son from the opening, is getting tired and wants to go to sleep so Justine volunteers to put him to bed. She ends up falling asleep with him, Claire finding her and waking her up. Justine talks about how she's trying to get through this, but feels “heavy and wooly” gray yarn is wrapped around her legs dragging her down. This should sound familiar if you saw the opening, as nearly every shot from that will come to pass. John, who has had it up to here with Gaby's attitude, silently shoots her in the head with a pistol. No wait, that's what he WANTED to do. Instead he packs her bags and THROWS THEM OUTSIDE, because there is never a moment that he's awake where Sutherland isn't doing something awesome.
When it's time for the cake cutting Justine is once again absent, the wedding planner telling Claire his wedding has been ruined and he will no longer acknowledge Justine. Michael finds his bride and takes her to a library as we learn she suffers from serious depression, which brings up one of the biggest flaws in this movie. We'll learn her depression is extreme, so why in a family that has more money than Bill Gates, does she never get any help?
We never hear a single mention of therapy or medication, and it really makes you wonder why she's allowed to do anything given her condition. Trying to cheer Justine up, Michael gives her his wedding present: a picture of an apple grove he bought for her. He asks her to carry the picture with her and whenever she gets sad to look at it to raise her spirits. She promises to do this and they begin to kiss, but then Justine abruptly says goodbye in a rather bitchy tone and leaves. Michael sees the picture is lying on the couch.
John confronts Justine over her behaviour, making her promise to be happy after the massive amounts of money he's spent for her wedding. This only serves to tick her off more, so it's likely she'll keep her word to him as well as she did with Michael. Operation: Let's All Piss Off The Clinically Depressed Mental Patient kicks into full swing as Jack introduces Justine to his nephew Tim, whom he has just hired for his company. Tim is played by Brady Corbet, who worked with Sutherland on the fifth season of 24 but to me he'll ALWAYS be Peter from Michael Haneke's remake of Michael Haneke's film Funny Games. That's a film I'm dying- ahh, deading?- to review but it's really hard to find the original 1997 version to contrast it again. Another day...
Jack invited Tim for the sole purpose of having him badger Justine until she can think of a tag line, which probably makes him a worse boss to work for than the Joker at this point. I mean seriously, did he think this would actually work? Why would he think it's okay to annoy the shit out of a mentally disturbed woman on her WEDDING DAY? Despite the way Justine has been treating Michael, I am firmly on her side after watching her friends and family constantly berate her. Although, this could be one of those pesky allegories you get in films that aren't about CGI robots, where Von Trier is illustrating how the “normal” world treats people with severe depression so character logic doesn't HAVE to apply here.
Justine basically tells them to fuck off and leaves, passing the wedding planner who puts his hand in front of his face so he doesn't have to look at her. HA! Justine returns to the library where she finds Michael and Claire likely talking smack about her, her husband leaving as she enters. Claire tells her off again and also leaves, because let's kick Justine while she's down. Justine goes about setting up a series of art books in the room, all containing very violent images of decapitation and the like. “Hunters in the Snow” is among them. The party heads outside, Justine doing her best to act happy but this fades very quickly. The reception finally ends, the newlyweds returning to their room for the night. Michael tries to engage her in sex, but once again she brushes him off and leaves.
A horrible realization begins to dawn across Michael's face as he watches her exit, as it just hit him what he's gotten himself into. He doesn't know the half of it though, because the next scene is of her walking around the golf course again with Tim following her. When he bugs her about the tag line again, she responds by pushing him to the ground and FUCKING HIM. Wow, you really hit the jackpot with this one Mikey! This scene has some unintentional hilarity because they're having sex on a sand trap, which is definitely the best place to expose your sexual organs. And you thought Justine had sand in her vagina BEFORE this happened...
After failing as hard on your wedding night as much as possible, Justine goes back inside to talk to her father. She really wants him to stay the night, but he's much more into the possibility of going home with one of the fine ladies he met during the party. She talks him into staying, having John's butler set him up a room. Jack and Tim show up again, Jack firing Tim for not securing the precious tag line. Justine, beyond sick of Jack's shit by now, tells him off in the most spectacular manner possible before storming off in her trademarked fashion. It's safe to say she no longer has a job. What else can she lose this dreadful night? Oh, how about her husband?
We see Michael head outside, suitcase in hand. He says he thought things would be different, to which she bitterly answers with “What did you expect?”. That's a fair question, really. Since the film's given us no back story on the two, one really does wonder what their life was like before the wedding. Michael HAD to have known she wasn't exactly balanced, so why did he marry her? Tim rushes in to secure the rebound, but Justine crashes his little fantasy by bringing up it probably isn't the greatest idea in the history of ideas. Tim is inclined to agree with her before leaving.
As the wedding planner packs his things up, he tells Claire the number of beans in the vase was 678. She does not care in the SLIGHTEST. We cut to the next morning, where Justine learns Dexter skipped out on her to leave with one of the women he met. This has probably been the two worst days of her life, I hope nothing else bad happens to her... for instance, a planet crashing into Earth and killing EVERYONE. Claire takes Justine horseback riding, but even this goes wrong as Abraham refuses to cross a small wooden bridge. Looking around, Justine notices Antares is now gone from the sky.
Click here for Part 2!