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Blu-ray review: “Melancholia”

It’s the end of the world, as a planet called Melancholia is on a collision course with our planet and all life will end in a matter of days. I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that this is the backdrop of Lars von Trier’s  latest film, named after that runaway planet. von Trier’s movie sounds like the stuff of an epic sci-fi adventure: Who will escape from impending doom? Where will humans survive? etc. Nope, not in this film. Instead, Melancholia is an intimate film told in two parts, centering on the lives of two sisters, Justine and Claire.

Part one is Justine’s story and she’s played with depth by Kirsten Dunst. That Dunst was not even nominated for her performance in this film was an egregious oversight by the Academy Awards. The actress, who has literally grown up on camera since her breakthrough role in Interview with a Vampire at age 10, is amazing. The first act takes place during a twenty four hour period surrounding Justine’s wedding day. As the story opens, she and her handsome groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive two hours late to the reception, much to the embarrassment of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire has planned the reception, which is being held on the elaborate estate she runs with her husband, John (Keifer Sutherand). From the moment Justine and Michael arrive, the reception is a disaster. The girls’ divorced, bitter mother, (Charlotte Rambling) has no kind words in her wedding toast, their father (John Hurt) is drunk and shows up with two women as his guests, and Michael’s father, Jack (who is also Justine’s boss), can’t separate work from his personal life and manages to include an assignment for Justine in his own toast. Jack is played by Skarsgard’s real life father, Stellan. The proceedings are almost comical. However the selfishness and anger of her family wear on the bride and her smile quickly fades.

Justine suffers from devastating depression. It can be so bad (as we later see) that she can’t even lift herself out of bed or get into a bath. As a dark mood sets into Justine’s psyche, only Claire recognizes that her sister is spiraling downward. Try as she may to keep Justine’s spirits up, the poor girl has begun that decent to rock bottom and she won’t be able to recover until the crash is over. The rest of the disastrous wedding night carries on like a Val Lewton film, with the night sky influencing Justine’s moods. But it isn’t the moon that’s in play; it’s a tiny red object up in the heavens: Melancholia.

The entire ensemble cast is excellent throughout the first act, with standout performances by Sutherland and Skarsgard. But you won’t be able to keep you eyes off of Dunst. This film represents her most mature dramatic role. In her past work there have been hints that she could tackle a character as complex and unlikable as Justine, but she shows so much depth here that I was blown away. I hope that A-list directors are taking note and that she’ll soon be offered the roles the same roles that Michelle Williams always seems to get.

Part two of Melancholia picks up some time after the end of part one. Claire is the focus of this act and Melancholia, the planet, is now a huge object in the sky the size of a full moon. Scientists are predicting that the planet will simply pass by Earth, but Internet naysayers warn of the end of days. Of course, thanks to von Trier’s stunning, dream-like prologue to the film, we know the truth. Claire’s story is smaller, dealing primarily with her immediate family:John, their son, Leo, and Justine, who has come to stay with her sister in a near comatose state of depression. While Claire and Leo trend to Justine, John secretly prepares for the worst. Part two is science fiction in a literal sense, seeing as a new planet is about to crash into Earth. This chapter of von Trier’s story is actually a small drama about fear, love and family. Claire’s greatest fear is for Leo, whom she loves more than anyone, and that his life will end.  She’s grateful for Justine’s presence, even though the two bicker as siblings will do. The interplay between Dunst and Gainsbourg plays nicely throughout the second act, as the two sisters work through their issues before the big bang.

Many of you will think that this whole film sounds like a complete downer and will shy away from seeing it. Normally, I might side with you on that one. However, Melancholia has a hypnotic quality about it that kept me attentive and interested until the end of the film. I believe that by announcing that the end was coming, von Trier took the impending doom feeling out of the movie and allowed for the viewers to just pay attention to the drama, the acting and the imagery. When the film came to its conclusion, I was not only sad for the fate of Justine and Claire, but I was sad that the film had come to an end.

The Blu-ray offers several nice features, all of which are informative and add to the enjoyment of the movie. For some reason this film was rated ‘R,” I suppose because Dunst exposes her breasts in an artful pose. I guess this is “graphic” according to the MPAA. Honestly, I found the movie rather tame in terms of language and sexual content.




  • http://www.kenshane.com kshane

    Good job Scott. I love this film, as I do much of Von Trier’s work. I suppose the reason there weren’t more nominations has something to do with Von Trier’s absurd comments, which were interpreted as pro-Nazi, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The guy just loves to stir things up, onscreen and off.