By Brian Lafferty
November 11, 2011 (San Diego) – Apparently every generation brings a disaster movie in which an asteroid, meteor, or comet is about to strike the Earth. There was Meteor in 1979. My generation had not one but two such movies in 1998. They were Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact. I don’t think I need to tell you which was more popular among my classmates.
There will be only one space impact movie this year and it’s a doozy. Melancholia is the first deconstructivist disaster movie in film history. It has the basic elements but Lars Von Triers’ screenplay takes the genre apart, rearranges the pieces, and assembles them in a way that makes it a disaster film that is at the same time not a disaster film.
Melancholia opens with a slow-motion scene, set to classical music, portending the end of Earth. After that are two segments called “Justine” and “Claire.” The former is about a disastrous wedding between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard of TV’s True Blood). “Claire” focuses on Justine’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Taking place a few months later, it’s learned that a planet is supposed to pass the Earth. Claire is skeptical and in the end, her fears are not unfounded.
Melancholia’s strength is in its use of dramatic irony. For those unfamiliar with the term, dramatic irony is when the audience knows something the characters don’t. This knowledge can be used to create suspense.
The dramatic irony in Melancholia is the audience’s knowledge of Earth’s impending doom. The characters are initially oblivious to it. It arises when Justine sees what she believes is a bright beautiful star called Antares. I knew it was a planet but the characters don’t know.
While I watched the disastrous wedding unfold, I felt a lot of dread and sadness. I wish I could say the characters were blissfully unaware, but the occasion was anything but blissful. I mourned the wasted shot at happiness and the characters’ not know how badly they screwed up and not knowing it was their last chance.
The dramatic irony further adds to the film’s solemn and somber atmosphere. The mood is as cold as the often-overcast skies and dreary gray color palette. There’s not a single shred of happiness to be found.
Kirsten Dunst gives a soul-baring performance. Very few people can play a depressed character as convincingly as she does here. Many depressed characters in movies tend to go over the top or really off the deep end. As someone who has suffered bouts of major depression in my life, I can say she plays it accurately.
At the beginning of the second half, for example, she can’t get out of bed and can’t eat. She’s so lethargic and so devoid of willpower that her sister has to put her in the bathtub herself. That’s way easier said than done.
When she gets married, she doesn’t play the stereotypical jittery and highly emotional bride. Instead, she’s confused, unsure of herself, and mentally conflicted.
Charlotte Gainsbourg gives an equally commanding performance. Along with The Tree, she’s two for two in outstanding acting this year. Gainsbourg is caring, sensitive, and nurturing.
As the planets grew closer to colliding I thought about my mortality. What would I do if I knew a planet would crash into Earth? What would I do if I knew that my life and everything it stood for would be literally shattered and its remnants scattered in the cast recesses of the Universe? What if I knew that everything on Earth, it’s history, and its civilizations, which took billions of years to develop, would be gone in an instant?
After some thinking I realized that I needed to do what these characters should have done. That is to live life to the fullest. Live for today. Live each day like it will be my last. Be happy beecause you never know if you will get a second chance or, even worse, if a planet will collide with Earth.
Melancholia is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest and Landmark La Jolla Village Cinemas.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Director: Lars Von Trier. Screenplay: Lars Von Trier. Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro. Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, and Kiefer Sutherland. 135 minutes. Rated R.