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Director Lars Von Tier divides”Melancholia”  into  two chapters.  The first takes place at a wedding, where the bride (Kirsten Dunst) fights against a crippling case of clinical depression while all the people around her, including her sister the maid of honor (Charlotte Gainsborg) get angry and resentful that she’s not happy enough, or thankful enough about all the work they’ve put into this wedding. Also, there are some real jerks at the wedding, including her mother (Charlotte Rampling) and her boss (Stelan Skarsgard).  I’d say “no wonder she’s depressed with so many awful people around her” but it seems pretty clear her depression has a medical basis, not a social/spiritual one.  She’s really trying to be happy, but the mass of tissue in her skull just isn’t cooperating.   And then she does something completely inexplicable and bizarre, and it seems that her marriage is over before her wedding ends.

The second half takes place a little while (weeks or maybe months) later, and is about the end of the world.  Dunst is living with her sister and her sister’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland), who’s filthy rich, angry all the time, and pretty much a waste of skin. There’s a massive planet cruising towards earth, and Sutherland, who’s all science-y, is convinced it’s going to cruise right past, giving them an amazing celestial spectacle to watch through their ten thousand dollar telescope on their veranda right next to their private golf course.  But Gainsbourg isn’t so sure, and keeps reading doomsday prophecies on the internet.  Dunst, for her part, doesn’t particularly care, but likes to lay naked on the golf course in the light of approaching doom.

The only thing I can see tying the two parts together is helplessness.  In the first, Dunst is helpless against the chemical imbalance in her brain; she’s fighting, and losing, an internal struggle to feel the way she thinks she ought to feel.  I felt like this part had some powerful insight into depression; it’s clear that director Lars Von Trier has been through it himself (also, I read it on the internet that he has) and knows a thing or two about what it’s like; how it’s not just a struggle with yourself, but a struggle with the people around you, who just can’t understand why you’re not happier despite everything they do to make you happy.

The second half, I guess, is about external helplessness; the planet approaches, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nothing that can be done to protect oneself from the destruction it brings.  Sutherland, and/or maybe the scientists he’s reading, choose to believe it’s all going to be okay, because can you imagine the chaos that would occur if everyone on earth realized they were going to die?  Maybe it’s about death; we all die, if not quite in this kind of spectacular way.  And maybe death comes to us all individually, in surprising and unexpected ways, to keep us all from going crazy in anticipation, despair, or fear.

One way or another, “Melancholia” is a beautifully photographed, thoughtful and puzzling film.  In some ways, it’s a lot easier to watch than anything else Von Trier has offered us, though it still bears his particular trademarks (shocking family dysfunction, inexplicable acts, despair, that particularly European brand of philosophy that requires looking at the worst of the worst and trying to stay calm and detached from it.) It’s an interesting film, if not exactly a coherent or understandable one.

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