One of the films of the decade, this is a bold work by Lars von Trier that is as much a unique cinematic experience as it is thought-provoking.
Dir. Lars von Trier
2011 | Denmark/Sweden | Drama/Sci-Fi | 135 mins | 2.35:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt
Plot: Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with the Earth.
Awards: Won Best Actress, Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes).
International Sales: TrustNordisk
Subject Matter: Mature/Depressing
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed in theatres – first published 16 Mar 2012)
Like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is a film that reminds us that although we are capable of big ideas, big emotions, and big dreams, our existence in the cosmos amounts to nothing more than nothingness, like a speck of dust on our planet.
Of course Malick’s film is more hopeful, more philosophical, and more divisive, but Melancholia proves that the genre of science-fiction can mix well with arthouse drama. The result is one of the most unique of cinematic experiences, and one of the medium’s most thought-provoking entries in recent years.
The director is but of course Lars von Trier, the Danish auteur whose trigger-happy nature has got himself in trouble many times, yet he continues to make some of European cinema’s most provocative and challenging works.
“I smile, and I smile, and I smile.”
Melancholia, which was in competition at Cannes (and going head-on with The Tree of Life in a clash of auteurs), tells a depressing tale of two sisters who are at odds with each other. They then discover that their strained relationship pales in comparison to a cosmic event that will unfold in due time as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with Earth.
Melancholia is the name of that planet, and it also aptly captures the emotions of lead actress Kirsten Dunst (who won Best Actress at Cannes). It is also a fitting title to von Trier’s film, which is as depressing as it gets.
Dunst plays Justine, opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Claire, her sister. Their performances are superb, though in my opinion Gainsbourg gives a more emotionally affecting display.
Broken into two major parts titled ‘Justine’ and ‘Claire’, Melancholia starts off with a prologue that is a melding of ultra slow-motion imagery and haunting music ‘Tristan und Isolde’ by Wagner, and concludes with a final sequence that will floor you to the core.
Von Trier’s shaky camera and quick-zoom technique to shooting the film can be nauseating at times, especially in the first part ‘Justine’. It gets better in ‘Claire’ though. Even then, the cinematography is beautiful; there are a couple of virtuoso overhead tracking shots of the two sisters riding their horses on a dirt track.
During the Cannes Film Festival press conference, von Trier infamously said that he sympathised with Hitler. He was subsequently banned from the festival and declared persona non grata.
The external shots of the huge lawn outside their home also reminds of the large, geometrically-shaped landscape garden in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In Resnais’ film, the shot is frozen in time. In von Trier’s film, the shot is waiting to freeze in time, as if it is a filmic foreshadowing a half-century in the making.
Melancholia is not for the mainstream crowd, though it can be argued that its sci-fi elements could help pull some in. But if you are bold enough to try, you will be greatly rewarded. It is also an excellent introduction to von Trier for the uninitiated. With a runtime of more than two hours, it requires patience.
Melancholia is a powerful Wagnerian opera. It is the mark of an auteur working at the height of his creative powers. For all of his big talk, von Trier understands the human condition. He understands our mortality.