Review: Melancholia (2011)



Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier
136 min.
Kirsten Dunst, Charltote Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellar Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Kiefer Sutherland
MPAA Rating
R for some graphic nudity,sexual content and language

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Never satisfied with mundane stories on mundane ideas, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has spent a lifetime crafting unusual plots into examinations of humanity and self-introspection. Melancholia is the kind of film that on the surface seems like it’s designed to capitalize on doomsday discussions associated with the end of the Mayan Calendar in 2012; yet, deeper examination proves that only von Trier could have tackled the idea and made it seem as fresh as the beginning of the world.

Broken into two distinct, complementary sections, von Trier’s film focuses on a pair of sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine gets top billing for the first half, a look at her spiralling depression punctuated by her wedding and the reception that follows. Justine’s family seems well adjusted at first, but as the cracks begin to show between estranged spouses Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), the festivities take a bitter turn. Justine’s fractured family life acts as catalyst for her abandonment of finance Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) for moonlit strole across the family’s estate golf course.

Dunst’s expression-rich face defines the narrative, each time we see her the splinters of normalcy begin widening until she’s consumed by her own depression. Dunst has been phoning in her performances for a number of years and it’s exciting to see her back in the saddle again. Seeing Hurt and Rampling go at each other is deliciously evocative and the cold-shoulder Keifer Sutherland (who plays Claire’s husband John) seems invested in providing is a nice counterpoint to his typically warm and accessible screen presence.

It’s as the second chapter begins that we understand why Justine had so much difficulty accepting her marriage. Her only stable examples were her bickering parents and the glacial cordiality between Claire and John. The focus of the latter half of the film, taking place long after Justine’s incarceration in a mental institution and subsequent release, is on Claire whose husband is an important government scientist looking into the approaching planet Melancholia. While the characters are uncertain if Melancholia will be intersecting with the Earth’s orbit, the audience already received confirmation of the fact at the beginning of the film in a lengthy, but beautiful opening sequence showing the collision of Earth and Melancholia.

Not wanting to create a panic, the aloof John disappears for much of the latter half of the film while Claire deals with the unnervingly calm Justine. Claire wonders just how much Justine’s depression is self-imposed and how much is her own fault. She doesn’t want to admit any culpability, but it’s clear she bears some responsibility, having permitted her sister to stay with her in her convalescence.

Gainsbourg conveys a slippery confidence that gives way to doubt, pity and frustration as the impending destruction of Earth creates a foreboding finality in her life. She lives in luxury, but what good will that do her now; and how much of her freeform life has she missed having given it up for her current one. We finally discover through her subtle performance that she has her own doubts about the fragility of life and her inability to cope with it.

Melancholia examines depression in a brazenly unique way. The film tries desperately to convey two different portraits of hysteria, one surrounding the life being given up and one involving the life long lost. In its final moments, the strange serenity that overcomes Justine is a brilliant exemplification of how humanity can only comprehend its own fate when it’s reached the absolute bottom and has finally begun to rise from it. As human beings, our greatest strength comes from our weaknesses and recognizing those things in ourselves and in others. Melancholia superbly brings the audience to the same understand allowing them to create their own introspective evaluation and never forcing one upon them.

Unlike von Trier’s previous films Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the filmmaker eschews gritty, well-focused realism in his photography and instead delivers a sumptuous visual feast. Vivid colors and crisp lines make this one of his most visually impressive films to date. The design is reminiscent of the work of Stanley Kubrick who favored stark, color-rich palettes to envelope his dark and desperate stories. Melancholia is a striking film, embellishing the more sedate characters and performances included.

As with all von Trier films, and the wider cerebral independent genre, mass audiences aren’t going to find a movie that intrigues them. For those who prefer to contemplate the nature of human relations, the dangers of unchecked depression and the ability to cope with outside influences, Melancholia is their kind of film. The two stories told in the film may seem disparate in their tone and content, but when taken together, they blend effectively into a complex mixture of thought-provoking cinematic grandeur.
Review Written
September 18, 2012

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