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Monday, Dec. 5, 2011

Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst gives award-worthy performance

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An unknown planet hidden behind the sun comes loose from its orbit and veers toward the Earth, gradually filling the sky. That was the plot device of Another Earth, whose release earlier this year coincided with the appearance at Cannes of Melancholia, Lars von Trier's film about a planet from behind the sun suddenly heading toward the Earth. Surely, apocalyptic anxiety is in the air. The appearance of a strange star in the heavens has been seen as an omen since history began.

Von Trier forswears the usual cinematic approaches to depicting a celestial object on a collision course with our world. In Melancholia there is no media chatter, no talking heads, no panic in the streets and no martial law—though undoubtedly most if not all of those things might be occurring beyond the frame. The setting is confined to a castle-like resort hotel in a remote rural setting, and the only word from outside comes through the laptop as a Wikipedia entry on the planet dubbed “Melancholia” and the contentious theories over whether it will strike the Earth. Cosmic disaster forms the backdrop to a psychological story, not the story itself. The prickly, exasperating relationship between two troubled sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is the main motif in Melancholia's family drama.

Of course, Dunst and Gainsbourg no more look and sound like sisters than Renee Zellweger and Penelope Cruz, but their back story is enigmatic and more intriguing for von Trier's refusal to spell it out. Everyone sounds American except Claire, and who knows: perhaps she was sent to a European boarding school at age 6? Their father is a jolly old rogue (John Hurt) and their mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a bitter old pill who casts a pall over Justine's wedding reception by rising from the head table to condemn her ex-husband—along with the idea of marriage and the whole elaborate affair. Her Cassandra utterances prove correct as Justine's marriage ends on her wedding night. Claire's husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), the status-conscious materialist who owns the resort (and rations compassion by the spoonful), has reason to wonder if the whole family isn't barking mad.

Melancholia, the planet hanging overhead like an executioner's silvery blade, also describes Justine's condition. She suffers from depression, sometimes in paralyzing bedridden bouts; her display of sunny happiness in the giddy opening scenes of her wedding are soon clouded by shadowy, doubtful expressions. It's a remarkably nuanced performance, worthy of the Best Actress award Dunst received at Cannes. Unlike Claire, who seems vulnerable to panic attacks, Justine is calm in the face of impending catastrophe. All the while, John, a practical man with common-sense, secondhand ideas, adamantly denies the end is near. “The real scientists all agree—Melancholia will pass right by us, and it will be the most beautiful sight we'll ever see,” he insists. Claire isn't so sure and Justine appears to welcome doomsday. “Life on Earth is evil,” she calmly declares.

The gnawing sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the universe has always been part of von Trier's sensibility. His commitment to the banal realism of everyday life, captured in Melancholia with hand-held cameras filming in natural light, is weighed against painterly scenes resembling the Pre-Raphaelites with a surreal stroke of Magritte. Von Trier seems to say that we live in the ordinary world but sometimes transcend it, though what we see from those heights isn't always pretty. The musical motif recurring throughout Melancholia, the prelude from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, infuses the proceedings with elegiac elements. The Earth is doomed, and attentive viewers will know what's coming from the opening sequence, a visual overture juxtaposing slightly disturbing images of Justine and other characters with a Stanley Kubrick vision of worlds colliding.

Opens Dec. 9 at the Oriental Theatre.