Melancholia (Review)


MELANCHOLIA (10/07/11 VOD; 11/11/11 Theaters; Sci-Fir, Drama)
Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård
SCR/DIR: Lars von Trier
2 hours 10 mins
MPAA: R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language.
(Magnolia)

Before the movie even introduces its characters, the world ends when it smashes into another planet. Leave it to avant garde director Lars von Trier to analogize the subject of mental depression with the literal end of the world, but he’s never been known to be a subtle filmmaker (check out Antichrist if you need further proof).

At the core of this tale is the conflict between two sisters, Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg), exacerbated after the events of the most Awkward Wedding Reception Ever.

In the first half, labeled “Part One: Justine,” Justine has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) and things are already tense because they arrive two hours late for the reception. Her parents (Hurt and Rampling) are bitter divorcees and Claire’s husband John (Sutherland) vacillates between righteous frustration and an unsettling passive-aggressiveness over the cost of the event. Behind the façade of Dunst’s beautiful bride is a woman being slowly crushed by a growing depression.

After meeting her family, it’s not hard to understand why.

In the second half (Part Two: Claire), the approaching planet Melancholia has captured the fascination of the world. Scientist John sees it as a wondrous event that will create nothing more than a spectacular show, but Claire, worn down by her sister’s downward spiral, unravels at the idea of certain doom and her inability to protect her young son.

It goes without saying that the performances are solid. If nothing else, von Trier has always had a knack for nudging his actors into fearless places. One thing is for certain: he doesn’t have very high regard for the men in this film. If they aren’t controlling and power-hungry, they take the easy way out.

Dunst delivers her most accomplished and daring performance as a woman who sees the possibility of Armageddon as her own personal escape from depression. Gainsbourg (the self-destructive wife in Antichrist) becomes the heart of the movie, her compassion allowing us to see the good in others, and her slow panic causing us to hyperventilate with her.

It’s been said that von Trier created this film (and Antichrist) as a means to deal with his own depression. As with most forms of therapy, there are no easy answers. The depiction of the world ending, with the aching strains of the overture from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde underscoring it, is hauntingly beautiful.

But the human agony is tattered, frantic, and hard to watch.

MEDIA MELANCHOLIA: The premiere took place at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and the audience reaction was rapturous. Alas, the goodwill lasted only as long as it took to reach the press conference, in which von Trier’s offhanded comments sparked an outrage that overshadowed the film itself. Trier first joked about working on a hardcore porn movie which would star Dunst and Gainsbourg. Then, when asked about the relation between the influences of German Romanticism in Melancholia and Trier’s own German heritage, the director brought up the fact that he had been raised believing his biological father was a Jew, only to learn as an adult that his actual father was a German gentile.

He then made jokes about Jews and Nazis, said he understood Adolf Hitler and admired the work of architect Albert Speer, and jokingly announced that he was a Nazi. The festival declared him “persona non grata” and was not allowed within 100 meters from the Festival Palace. He did however stay in Cannes and continued to give promotional interviews. (Magnolia)

— DENNIS WILLIS



Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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