Monday, November 7, 2011


Melancholia - Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, and Kiefer Sutherland - Rated R

Melancholia might seem boring at first, but if you let it sink in you may come to love it, as I did.

Lars von Trier is a bit of an egomaniac and it can be hard to separate the filmmaker’s comments from his films. It’s hard not to mention the director since he makes his name as big as the title in Melancholia and even goes so far as to include that name on the title card…above the title. He is certainly a gifted enough filmmaker to warrant attention, but von Trier’s more outrageous statements should be ignored while the actual films should be scrutinized.

Those well-versed in von Trier’s work know that his films are not always easy to sit through. That was certainly true of Antichrist, and while Melancholia lacks the complete shock value of his previous film, there are still elements that make this a difficult watch.

Melancholia is mainly a film about the relationship between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Much of the film is set during Justine’s wedding reception and it is a fairly basic drama about these two women and their problems. But there is one other plot element: a planet is moving past Earth and could possibly destroy it in the coming days. That certainly ups the interest factor in a sibling drama.

The planet, Melancholia, adds a sense of foreboding to the film that becomes its saving grace. This is a film that is all about atmosphere and what creates a greater, darker mood for a film than Earth’s potential destruction? Too often end of the world movies have been about the scientists trying to stop it and all the action that entails. It’s refreshing, and a bit depressing, to see a film that just accepts it and uses it as a backdrop for a troubled familial relationship.

The relationship is the main point of this film, though. At no point does this actually feel like a film that is focused on the sci-fi element. Melancholia is completely about Justine and Claire. That might cause a problem for some viewers as the destruction of Earth is a bit more interesting than two bickering sisters, yet if you allow yourself to be drawn in by the film then the sisters should completely hold your interest and that planet that may or may not destroy Earth can stay where it belongs: in the background.

Justine and Claire are just as interesting as Melancholia because of their mental problems. Justine suffers from immense depression and Claire seems to be in a constant state of anxiety. Their problems can be of the infuriating kind as there are so many scenes of unspoken issues. You may find yourself urging them on to just cut the crap and yell at each other. Aside from that, though, it is quite clear that something is wrong and most of their scenes are compelling, especially when the rest of the family is involved.

Melancholia also works because of the insanely talented cast. Dunst (who took home Best Actress at Cannes) gives a great performance that completely embodies depression. Gainsbourg gets the less showy role but handles it with impressive understatement. The rest of the cast has their moments as well: Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgard all keep the film moving nicely in their supporting roles.

Then there’s the last star of the film: Lars von Trier. As usual, he has made an absolutely beautiful film. The first ten minutes of the film are like watching slowly moving paintings. The rest of the film never lives up to those first images but the camerawork still makes the film interesting on a visual level. And since this is von Trier there are plenty of ways to look at the film. Just scan the message boards for some wild theories. While most of the theories as to what Melancholia represents and what some of Justine’s actions really mean are quite ridiculous, it’s still fun (or perhaps interesting is the better word since fun and von Trier occurring together just seems wrong) to look deeper into a film. Theories can be applied to absolutely any movie out there, sure, but von Trier’s work earns a closer, deeper look.

Whenever theories are thrown around about movies like Melancholia there is the backlash that viewers are looking for things that are not there because the movie taken at face value is simply boring. I certainly felt that way after my initial viewing and I can completely accept anyone condemning Melancholia as boring, pretentious crap. You’ll hear no argument from me because that is a completely valid opinion. What saved the film for me was the intense atmosphere of the film. After I finished it my response was along the lines of, “What the hell was that, von Trier?” I didn’t think it was a bad film so much as a disappointingly boring film. But the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and had an intense need to watch it again (I couldn’t, though, because of those damned 24-hour On Demand rental time limits). And as I thought back on the film I realized that those “boring” moments (the wedding reception that goes on nearly as long as the notorious celebration in The Deer Hunter) were actually captivating because of everything that wasn’t happening. It’s a strange way to explain a film, I know, and it’s definitely a pretentious “critic”-type way of looking at it, but it is what it is.

In short, Melancholia is not a film for most people. I can’t imagine von Trier ever making a film for most people, anyway. In fact, I wasn’t one of those people this film was for after my initial viewing. It just grew on me. And perhaps all films should be taken at face value, but when you watch hundreds of movies a year, something as different as Melancholia deserves a second thought. Casual filmgoers should probably skip this one, but the more obsessive watchers should give Melancholia a close look.

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