Friday, December 30, 2011

Why I Can't Get 'Melancholia' Out of My Head

The mark of a truly great movie is that it stays with you long after the final credits roll. And no 2011 film that I've seen so far has had such a tight grip on me for so long after the fact as Melancholia, which I hold in even higher regard now than I did while I was watching it.

At this rate, it just might end up being my favorite movie of the year, and not just because Wagner, my favorite composer, figures so prominently on the soundtrack. In an interesting twist, The Tree of Life, which would be my pick for 2011's most overrated movie, despite a fantastic performance from Brad Pitt, featured the beginning of the world, while Melancholia climaxed with the end of it. I've always imagined that the Immolation Scene from Wagner's Gotterdammerung would be playing at the end of time.

If I ruled the world, which, hopefully, will not end in 2012, the Best Actress Oscar would be Kirsten Dunst's to lose. She should be this year's Natalie Portman, another former child actor who blossomed into a formidable adult performer, but for some reason, Hollywood seems to have a grudge against her. In the past, I haven't been particularly fond of Dunst's work, but she owns the character of Justine in Melancholia.

I've never been quite as far down in the depths as Justine goes, but I've been close enough to recognize the scenery. If I ever were to tie the knot, I probably wouldn't have sex with a stranger on the front lawn during the wedding reception, but I can so see myself doing something to sabatoge my happily ever after.

As Justine's sister Claire, for whom the film's second section, my favorite, is named, Charlotte Gainsbourg is nearly as impressive. She has a role similar to the one that Sarah Paulson played to Elizabeth Olsen's title character in Martha Marcy May Marlene: rock-solid big sibling, caretaker, and judgmental, disapproving witness to the unraveling of a family member.

I first fell in love with Gainsbourg in 1993, when I saw The Cement Garden at New York City's Angelika Film Center on my first date with my second boyfriend. Though Melancholia is, for the most part, The Kirsten Dunst Show, Gainsbourg and her voice of reason ground it. She is to these proceedings what Rachel Griffiths was to Hilary and Jackie, or Mare Winningham to Georgia. Griffiths' and Winningham's efforts were rewarded with well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, and so should Gainsbourg's. (Incidentally, I'd put Bridesmaids' Rose Byrne on that shortlist, too. She was so much more essential to that film than Melissa McCarthy, but no one has said a word about her.)

It is through Claire's eyes that we experience the end of the world in Melancholia, and Gainsbourg does such a fantastic job taking us there. I've occasionally wondered how I might react if I were diagnosed with a terminal illness and only had months to live, but I've never considered what I would do if a planet called Melancholia were on a crash-collision course with Earth.

Would I reach out to the people I love who already know that I love them? Would I reach out to those who might not be so sure? Would I indulge in a last supper where calories and nutrition wouldn't count? Would I swallow a bottle of pills, as Justine's cowardly husband (Kiefer Sutherland, in a role that I would have imagined going to someone like Billy Crudup) does? Would I call the one that got away and invite him over for one last go? At it's best, sex can feel like the end of the world, which would be such a fantastic note to go out on.

One thing I know for sure is that I wouldn't build a fortress made of sticks and sit under it holding the hands of my freakishly serene, depressed sister and alarmingly calm son. No, that wouldn't do at all. But I'm glad that's what Claire chose to do. The image of the trio holding hands as Melancholia approaches is haunting and unforgettable. If that's what the end of the world will look like, I couldn't imagine a more beautiful, brutal finale.
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