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Review: Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia (2011)

Directed by: Lars von Trier

Premise: Sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) cope with depression while a newly discovered planet heads on a crash course for Earth.

What Works: Melancholia is a slow, meditative film about the world falling apart and it is a beautifully made and skillfully acted piece of work. The picture demonstrates a high degree of cinematic craft, such as the slow motion cinematography of the introductory sequence establishing the downbeat tone of the film and the inclusion of the planet in the background, from which doom creeps in on the characters in the foreground. Other scenes are shot in a naturalistic, handheld style that keeps the audience at a critical distance from the characters and events, much like Kirsten’s Dunst character’s own alienation. The picture opens on the wedding of Dunst’s character and slowly tracks the unraveling of her relationship at her reception. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the sister to Dunst’s character and the two of them have a subtle but important contrast with each other. Gainsbourg’s character attempts to control everything by planning the wedding, taking care of her sister in her depression, and later trying to outrun an inescapable event. Dunst’s character recognizes the futility of all this; she has the depressed perspective of a wise philosopher as she recognizes the transitory and superficial nature of everything. And yet, this film is not entirely as nihilistic as that sounds. As Dunst’s character emerges from her depression she is able to come to some peace with the impending doom and provide comfort her nephew (Cameron Spurr). Both lead actress give performances that are wonderful and intense. Dunst is especially impressive in the first half as her veil of happiness fades and she gradually slips into a coma of depression. Gainsbourg plays the more emotional of the sisters and her increasingly frantic attempts to control things that are beyond her means effectively parallels the growing threat. This combination of subtle character work with broad, literally earth-shattering events is very good filmmaking that manages to raise interesting intellectual about the value of life while delving into some of the darkest parts of the human psyche.    

What Doesn’t: Melancholia is a Lars von Trier picture, so viewers should gauge their expectations appropriately. Von Trier’s filmmaking style is paradoxical because his movies are emotionally distant while simultaneously viscerally impactful. In a way, Von Trier may be the best claimant to the legacy of Stanley Kubrick, whose films were similarly detached and ambitiously high-minded while elucidating a caustic worldview. Love it or hate it, this is the kind of film von Trier makes and he makes it very well. Melancholia may be the peak of von Trier’s nihilism; after setting manic depression and family conflict against the end of the world, there isn’t much farther to go. Admirers of von Trier’s work or those interested in experimental and high concept cinema will definitely take interest in Melancholia but general audiences, especially those who have not seen von Trier’s other films like Dancer in the Dark or Dogville, will likely be mystified and frustrated by the new film.

Bottom Line: Although Melancholia is not an uplifting or inspiring film it is very well made. Like most of Lars von Trier’s work, it is a film that is going to divide audiences as to its thematic merits but no one can rightly deny Melancholia’s filmmaking achievement.

Episode: #364 (November 13, 2011)