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Melancholia (2011)

March 14, 2012


written by: Lars Von Trier

produced by: Meta Louise Foldager and Louise Vesth

directed by: Lars Von Trier

rating: R (for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language)

runtime: 130 min. 

U.S. release date: October 11, 2011 (iTunes, VOD, amazon & Zune) and November 11, 2011 (limited)

DVD/Blu-ray release date: March 13, 2012


Getting married should be the most important and excited day in a couple’s life – not the end of the world. But in the films of Danish director Lars Von Trier, a happy newlywed couple is only given an outward happiness as Earth’s imminent destruction builds a quiet looming dread around the wedding festivities. Melancholy is hardly a foreign theme in a Von Trier film, therefore the title of his latest film is fitting, and like his previous films, “Melancholia” displays dazzling visuals amid an increasingly dour mood. Yet for all its artistic style and deliberately bizarre slo-mo shots, one would be hard-pressed to find any real emotional connection for a viewer. It’s an element severely lacking in a film that attempts to balance grandiose introspection and emotional examination on an intimate scale. As much as I appreciate the artistry here, at no point did I feel anything for a protagonist who feels nothing, but maybe that’s the point.

“Melancholia” opens with a series of seemingly random and agonizingly slow shots set to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” as a prelude – or a music video trailer – foretelling what we’re in store for. We watch as characters move ever so slowly outdoors in what seems to be a wealthy estate, intermingled with a woman holding a child while in an assumed state of panic, and then the camera pans out – way out, like outer space out. A large planet is closing in on Earth, causing them both to inevitably collide, destroying everything and everyone. These scenes are beautiful, troubling, confusing, and curious.

The soundtrack of global obliteration in a Von Trier film is far from the bombastic score you’d find in any other disaster movie. Instead, there’s a melodramatic dirge coinciding with detached emotions, frenzy, misery, and doomsday fear. Then we see the scribbly opening title – similar to the surreal “Antichrist” – take up the entire screen: “Melancholia” indeed.



The film continues in two parts, focusing on two sisters, Justine and Claire. We are introduced to them both on Justine’s wedding day. The ceremony is over and we watch as a limo, carrying Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), to their reception. They are a beautiful couple, appearing to be content and happy. After overcoming a challenging (yet humorous) drive, they arrive at a remote palatial estate where Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband, John (Keifer Sutherland), both display an obvious degree of anxiety and annoyance at the newlyweds late arrival. The elaborate reception that awaits is a gift from Claire and John, an expensive one at that – something John repeatedly reminds the spiteful  Claire under his breath.

Right away, the family tension is palpable and it’s only the beginning. At first, the reception appears delightful, with Justine and Michael surrounded by family and friends that love them. There is dancing, singing, and tiny hot air balloons launched outside, filled with well wishes from guests. But amid the revelry, the rawness of reality rises to give us the all-too familiar truth of a dysfunctional family. There’s the introduction of the boozy Lothario father (John Hurt) and her bitter detached mother (Charlotte Rampling), who spews one of the most uncomfortable toasts in cinematic history, spewing careless bitterness. It doesn’t matter how much money is thrown at a wedding, the awkwardness of family discord can be an undeniable presence.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that we find Justine checking out. We first see it as she sits next to her husband, no longer able to feign joy, her indifference soon becomes overwhelming as she removes herself – first mentally and then physically. Justine evades the obligations of the evening, upsetting an uptight wedding planner (the hilarious Udo Kier, a Von Trier staple) and breaking the heart of her poor husband. Justine’s boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård) is also in attendance, apparently only to add additional pressure for his employee. The reception dissipates and soon everyone (including the distraught groom) is gone, leaving Justine to fade into her deep depression. This is the true Justine. She’s been in this miserable state before and Claire is once again at her side, trying to console her and get her out of this emotionally crippling state, which prevents her from even bathing or eating. But now she has lost any aspect of control, manifesting her pain in hurtful outbursts, shocking carnal encounters, and naked moonlight bathing.



There’s something else going on though, a looming planetary presence that accentuates the emotions in these characters. Early on in the film, Justine looks up at the evening sky and notices an object bigger than a star. We learn it is a rogue planet named Melancholia that has been hiding behind the sun and is now headed for Earth. It’s no coincidence that Justine’s own melancholic disposition was hiding behind a sunny exterior at the beginning of the film and has now affected everyone around her. It’s just one of many parallels that von Trier inserts, leaving little room for interpretation.

The second half of the film focuses on Claire, who is quickly unraveling, even moreso than Justine – mainly because Claire wants to live. While Justine walks the estate’s golf course, amazed at how electricity is flowing from her fingertips, Claire is researching the trajectory of Melancholia online. The information she acquires feeds her fears, as her concern grows for the survival of herself and that of her son, Leo (Cameron Spurr). John, an astronomy enthusiast, has been keeping an eye on the planet through a telescope and believes it will simply do a fly-by. At first he thought it was the star Antares, but as it has grown in size, there’s no doubt what Melancholia is. It adds little reassurance for the frightened Claire, while a collected calm seems to blanket Justine, who sees that world as an evil and rotten place – making the end of it all an acceptable no-brainer.



It’s a compelling story, but like Dunst’s Justine, I found I could care less. There was absolutely no one in “Melancholia” for me to connect with or show any real vested interest in. Not that I don’t have empathy for those crippled by depression, it’s just that not enough characterization is given to Justine for me to see her as anything other than an insensitive and selfish young woman. It may be a fine performance by Dunst, but it seems like we’ve seen iterations of these emotions from her before in movies like “The Virgin Suicides”, “Crazy/Beautiful” and “Marie Antoinette”. At least Gainsbourg is playing a character that has more of a handle on things than her role in “Antichrist”, somewhat at least. Or could it be that what we have here is yet another von Trier film where females (both the actors and their character) are put through the wringer, having them experience a gamut of emotions, stressing every fiber of their mental, emotional, and physical state.

As disaster films go, this is no “2012”. von Trier doesn’t bother with any newsreels or global hysteria, his is a refreshing approach proving the film can’t simply be categorized as simply a disaster flick.  He focuses on the same people and location (we never even know where this estate is, kind of a nice touch, actually),  maybe because the true disaster here are these two sisters, basically abandoned by their parents. While the cinematography by Manuel Albert Caro is mostly quite artful and appropriately surreal, much of the handheld work during the reception grew tedious. I couldn’t help but think of how Jonathan Demme gave us a much more organic and realistic look at a wedding in “Rachel Getting Married”.

Then again, “Melancholia” isn’t about a wedding or the end of the world as we know it. Depression is at the core, both literally and metaphorically – maybe too metaphorically. Still, like so many of von Trier’s films, “Melancholia” is a challenging watch, both compelling and unsettling, yet a laborious endurance test for some (okay, me). It’s a reminder that von Trier isn’t just interested in tormenting his actors, he’s generous enough to dish it out to his audience as well.




RATING: **1/2




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