A film review by Craig J. Koban January 5, 2012

Rank:  #2


2011, R, 139 mins.


Justine: Kirsten Dunst / Claire: Charlotte Gainsbourg / Michael: Alexander Skarsgard / John: Kiefer Sutherland / Tim: Brady Corbet / Gaby: Charlotte Rampling / Dexter: John Hurt / Jack: Stellan Skarsgard

Written and directed by Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA has one of the great introductory scenes of the movies; it contains images of uncommon and transfixing power.  

It opens with the chillingly beautiful musical cues from Wagner’s TRISTAN AND ISOLDE and then shows a montage of disturbing apocalyptic visions done with achingly slow moving, but almost lyrically stunning photography: a woman, decked out in a wedding dress, runs through a forest whose vines and branches seem to morph around her body and hold her at bay; an image of the same woman floating in a pond holding flowers; another striking visual has a screaming mother holding her child and desperately trying to run knee deep through soggy grass; and, in an angelic moment, lightning shoots through and off of power lines and through the finger tips of one woman.  The world is ending.  In a shot of awesome scope, ambition, and startling finality, we see Earth from the perspective of distant space that is shown colliding with a much larger planet.  It is obliterated upon contact.  Earth is no more. 

MELANCHOLIA is von Trier’s - the notorious Danish filmmaker known for pushing buttons and alienating the press and his colleagues alike – end-of-the-world drama and its title refers to two things: Firstly, a condition of escalating sadness and dread (as experienced by some of the film’s key characters) and, secondly, the name of a newly discovered blue-ember hued planet that had apparently been hiding behind the sun and now has mysteriously become visible in the sky.  It's the same planet, as shown in the film’s prologue, that will indeed destroy our planet as we know it.  The visual tableau showcasing this cosmic collision bares more than a resemblance to similar montages in Terrance Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE from earlier this year.  After seeing that film I doubted whether or not another film could match its spellbinding power in terms of its ethereal celestial splendors.  I think that von Trier’s efforts here are as close as any to matching Malick’s achievement. 

MELANCHOLIA is part sci-fi magnum opus, part family melodrama, and part expose on the nature of depression and disease.  It’s also one of the most unusual and remarkably original films about a global cataclysm that I’ve ever seen.  This is not the stuff of manic and overwrought action and CGI effects of the Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich variety; von Trier is an auteur that is hardly compelled by such trivialities.  If anything, he avoids nearly every single convention and cliché that has so dominated apocalypse films: there’s no money shots, so to speak, of vast cities or iconic monuments being laid to waste; no paranoid mobs causing social upheaval before the impending end of it all; no TV news broadcasts or experts speaking out on the reasons for the apocalypse to come; and certainly no footage of the aftermath of the cataclysm.  

What we do get in von Trier’s treatment of an event that’s viewed from with the intimate confines of a small dysfunctional family unit.  And when the end does come with comes with an indescribable level of destruction and uncompromising conclusiveness.  It’s clear from the beginning that nothing on Earth will survive this event, not even micro- organisms.  There’s nowhere to hide.  No secret underground military bunkers to seek refuse in.  No manner of escaping the planet either.  What we get, though, is an endlessly evocative image of a wounded and flawed woman that simply faces the planet as it impacts; she and what’s left of her family will stay together and face the end as a solidified unit.  What else could they possible do otherwise?  So few portrayals of the end of life on Earth have been envisioned so breathtakingly, hauntingly, and beautifully as MELANCHOLIA. 



The film’s main storyline – told in two parts with chapters named after two sister characters - is grounded in its personas and within their family.  Before anyone learns of “Melancholia's” existence, let alone its fateful and destructive path with Earth, we see the aftermath of a wedding between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) that was meticulously planned by her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland).  Justine appears happy on her wedding day, but inwardly she’s a melancholic mess of conflicting emotions.  Her wedding reception – one of the most believably rendered ones in a movie in a long while – only makes her mental state more fractured.  She commits an act that no woman should in the brief aftermath of exchanging nuptials that leads to her new husband leaving her.  

The second part of the film deals with the aftermath of not only the failed wedding and marriage, but also with the discovery and future impact of Melancholia.  Scientists seem convinced that it will harmlessly pass by Earth, but the increasingly paranoid Claire (who was a pillar of emotional strength in the first part) begins to unravel with the thoughts of the end.  Oddly enough, Justine herself has grown more emotionally sound with the advent of Melancholia approaching Earth and when it appears that there is no way that these two celestial bodies will not collide with one another, Justine takes peaceful solace in the inevitable and finds herself trying to heal her grieving and petrified sister.  

At face value, MELANCHOLIA is about the end of the Earth, but von Trier has insightful themes beyond that to tackle, like how two sisters react differently to an unfathomable crisis.  When Justine can’t handling the false façade of being a happily married woman to a man she may not really love, she lacks the strength that, say, Claire has with dealing with it.  Conversely, when it appears that Melancholia will destroy the planet, it’s actually Justine that is a sturdy fixture of inner resolve and Claire that becomes a fragile and hopelessly lost figure.  The two performances are key here: Dunst has never, ever been as natural, raw, and wholeheartedly convincing (she deserved her award for Best Actress that she received at Cannes earlier this Spring) as she plays Justine as an uncertain, disturbed, vulnerable, and ultimately secure figure during an unspeakable horror to come.  Gainsbourg also has a very tricky dichotomy to pull off here, who starts the film as a grounded and assured person that later becomes profoundly troubled and distressed.  You will not find two superior and more credible female performances all year. 

And then there is the polarizing shadow of von Trier himself looming over just about everything in the film, and there is certainly something to be said about his nagging public indiscretions (I won’t dignify his hurtful and wrongheaded words at a post-Cannes-release press conference earlier this year with any further comment).  As a flashy provocateur, von Trier is often his own worst enemy.  Yet, there should be no denying his unique mastery of the film medium here: he makes MELANCHOLIA brooding, uncompromisingly depressing, and darkly humorous at times, but he also infuses in it a continuously compelling, fiercely ambitious, and boundlessly original handling of classical film techniques meshed with his own esoteric trappings.  MELANCHOLIA is loose and free-wheeling with its fly-on-the-wall camera work when dealing, say, with the post-wedding sequences, but when it comes to portraying the apocalypse itself – with that beguiling Wagner score echoing in the background alongside lush, majestic, and painterly screen compositions – you gain an immediate sense that you're witnessing an unique artist at work at total command of his craft.

Most importantly, MELANCHOLIA does not waste too much time it expositional scenes regarding science and the physics involved with planets colliding.  MELANCHOLIA is more of an abstract symphony like, yes, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and THE TREE OF LIFE that's meant to suggest a penetrating sense of mood and atmosphere.  From its robustly grand and epic introductory montages to its final planet-on-planet impact that effectively obliterates everything, von Trier’s whole aesthetic here carries a profundity, yet stark simplicity and elegance.  Sometimes when a critic can’t find a way of describing what a film is about they often will describe how they simply reacted to it.  MELANCHOLIA greatly stirred me in unmistakable and in almost inexpressible ways.  For a film to have that type of power is significant alone, and few films in 2011 elicited a comparable level of primal fascination.

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