Saturday, September 3, 2011

"Life is only on Earth. And not for long."

Film: Melancholia
Writer/Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier.
Running time: 136 min

You can love him. You can loathe him. In fact, there are probably a lot more people against Lars von Trier nowadays after his Nazi gaffe at a press conference in Cannes earlier this year. Cannes booted him out, but luckily they didn't boot his film, Melancholia, out of the competition, and Kirsten Dunst ended up winning Best Actress. Lars, a Danish director with the word 'fuck' proudly tattooed on the fingers on his right hand, is not known for making pleasant films and doesn't shy away from much on screen (let's just take the genital mutilation in Antichrist as an example here...) Melancholia, however, may be one of the most tame films that he has done in a while, and apparently his first to have an unhappy ending. Still, while I don't really respect von Trier as a person, he sure knows how to make a good film.

While the film is tame, with Melancholia, von Trier deals with a pretty heavy topic: the apocalypse. No, this isn't the kind that has John Cusack saving a whole lot of people in the nick of time. Instead, the oncoming apocalypse is just a minor detail in the film until halfway through, where it starts becoming more and more apparent. As the film opens, we see Kirsten Dunst, playing the clinically depressed Justine, staring at the dead birds falling all around her. Then there are several highly-stylised slow motion scenes of some of the characters and space. At the end of this, the Earth is shown colliding with a bigger planet, known as 'Melancholia'. The film, after that, is divided into two parts. The first is from Justine's perspective, at the reception of her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), at her sister Claire's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John's (Kiefer Sutherland) castle/golf course. Justine tries to appear happy at this event but is disenchanted by it all and leaves several times.

This first part is probably the film's best. For most of it, it appears to be a comedy, mainly because of the acerbic humour from Justine and Claire's mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling). There are some fine moments of light-hearted laughs and smiles. But while it all appears to be happy, this is one wedding which sets out to make you feel awful. Kirsten Dunst is magnificent to watch in this part because of the way she's introduced: beaming and blissful, completely ignorant of the fact that she's two hours late to her own party and her sister seems to resent her for that. Through this entire party, her façade starts to disappear and she slowly starts to unleash evil onto everyone else and herself. While it's slightly annoying and disturbing watching Justine be quite ungrateful and ruin everything, there is comic relief which comes in the form of Justine's family. As I said, there's the acerbic humour from Gaby. But there's also humour in Justine and Claire's father, Dexter (John Hurt), who just likes to have a good time. Kiefer Sutherland is also particularly funny to watch, as he tries to deal with his wife's crazy family and with the fact that he has paid for this brilliant reception and the bride doesn't seem to be enjoying all of his money quite as much as he had hoped.

The film is practically all fun and games until the very late stages of the first part, which bridges the gap between the first and the second part. This part focuses on Claire, and more on the apocalyptic side of things. Justine arrives at Claire and John's estate, so depressed that she finds it hard to do normal things like eat and take a bath. Claire looks after her, until Justine slowly becomes more and more coherent. The film then switches gear as Melancholia comes closer and closer to Earth, with Claire constantly worrying about the planet's movements. While I'd like to say that this chapter belongs to Charlotte Gainsbourg, who does perform terribly well, Dunst is again magnificent to watch. Her clinical depression is something which is very painful to watch, as she loses faith in everything around her. And that provides a beautiful gateway into what the movie is trying to say about the apocalypse.

The apocalypse matter is beautifully handled. Most apocalyptic movies tend to have people dodging falling things from the sky, but this movie focuses more on the psychological side of it all. Most of the stunning apocalyptic scenes happen at the very beginning in the montage of connected scenes, which leaves the latter stage of the film to deal with the actual human side of the apocalypse. Lars von Trier was right: this film has a very unhappy ending. But it is also an ending which sends shock-waves through your system. I, for one, was left shaken by it's sheer power that was mainly achieved to some very clever sound effects and staging, and the differing emotions of those involved. Everything about this movie was frighteningly real. Because, after all, the movie was really about humans being humans, life being life, and the end being the end.

Melancholia is by no means a perfect movie, though. There are several aspects of it that didn't work, and a lot of background that wasn't explained. It is pretty much like the audience is thrown into these people's lives, and we don't end up ever knowing that much about them. The film has very languid pacing - there are points when it is not terribly exciting. The tonal shifts are particularly disappointing, as the film goes from comedy to drama to sci-fi, without smooth transitions between them all. The dialogue is thinly written during the second part. There are a lot of things which stop Melancholia from achieving greatness, and I doubt that it will get any recognition come Oscar time. But I do have to admire what Lars von Trier has done here: given us a realistic view on something that may/may not happen in our future and plunged his audience into a deep ecstasy of depression...all through his hand-held camera. You can love him, or you can loathe him. Me? I can't ignore the fact that Melancholia is a stunning piece of cinema, by a man who does know how to make a good film.

My rating:


  1. hand held camera?! way to bury that information. does it shake like everyone elses?
    sounds like one of those difficult movies. but worth the time you put in to it.
    this isn't out yet is it? you saw it at a festival of some kind?

  2. Um, what?
    And yeah, I saw it at the NZ film fest yesterday.

  3. in your penultimate sentence you said that von trier plunges his audience in to ecstacy and depression through his hand held camera. is it a paul greengrass style film with lots of shaking of the camera? cos i really hate that aesthetic and it might put me off of the film completely.

  4. No, it's not the kind of hand held shit that goes all over the place. It's a bit more controlled. Plus, it's not like there are any action sequences to shake the crap out of!

  5. haha thank you, although in some of those Bourne movies the camera shakes when people are having a conversation at a desk.

  6. I want to see this so bad! Just answer me this- is it anything like Breaking the Waves, 'cuz then I am sooo in!!

  7. Nice job. This is the second Melancholia review I've read today and it makes me want to see it even more. Don't think it comes out till November where I am though.

  8. Haha, you said that von Trir doesn't make easy movies but I've written in my review that this one was an easy pleasant watch for me. In fact, yes, I agree with you but somehow it wasn't depressing. If the director wanted to make audience feel terrible, he failed to make ME really sad.

    As for the Oscars, I believe it can catch a nod for cinematography.

    However, there are many points that we agree on and there are some issues that both of us described in similar words.

    By the way, did you like that roaring sound at the beginning and at the ending, when Melancholia was too close to Earth? I loved that sound effect! It felt so real.

  9. I'm more eager to see this since I'm a longtime von Trier fan. Especially since it's the second part of von Trier's "Depression" trilogy. I also like Kirsten Dunst a lot who I feel is very underrated and should've gotten more praise for her work in Marie Antoinette. I think part of the reason why she's gotten so much praise for her performance in this film is because Dunst had gone through a period of depression a few years ago where she didn't work for a while and used that experience for this performance.

    Great review as always.

  10. Great review! I am unfamiliar with most of Von Trier's work (excluding Dancer in the Dark), so I'm unsure as to whether or not I will like it or not. I'm certainly interested, however.

  11. If Antichrist was supposed to have a happy ending i totally missed it

  12. Really looking forward to this. While I don't expect it to be as good as, say, DOGVILLE, it still sounds very interestimg. And I must say, Stevee, for a person who has only seen two of his films you appear to have done your research on the man, well done! I am looking forward to another gloriously nihilistic ending. And that's not sarcastic. I seriously am excited.

  13. Toby - I know! It's horrible.

    Nikhat - It's a little like Breaking the Waves, but just a little more 'Hollywood', I guess. It's certainly as depressing as Breaking the Waves, that's for sure.

    Bonjour Tristesse - I don't even know when it comes out here. Thank goodness for the film festival!

    Lesya - He made me depressed, that's for sure. I was just about ready to breakdown in the carpark after I left the cinema, haha.
    Cinematography might get it a nod, but I can see it losing a lot of traction as we roll towards awards season.
    And yes, we had very similar reviews!
    I loved the sound of that planet. That's one of the reasons why I was so shaken by it!

    thevoid99 - I've always liked Dunst, and I'd love for her to get a lot more recognition for her performance here. I guess she acted a lot from her experience with depression, which makes her even more believable. Thanks!

    Vik V. - Thanks! I think this is probably the most accessible film that von Trier has done, as it's not really that 'weird' as such.

    Julian - If Breaking the Waves was supposed to have a happy ending I totally missed it.

    Tyler - I know you are! I did do a bit of research on von Trier, and he seems like a pretty interesting guy. I need to see more of his work! Keep on being's worth being excited over!

  14. I enjoyed the slow pace, but did indeed feel a bit confused at some of the plot.

    Was Justine really together with Michael? It felt like it was a set up to make Justine feel better. What did Claire tell Michael at the wedding?
    How much time passed (I'm guessing no more than a few days) between the first and second half?

    I bet I'll enjoy this more (not that I didn't the first time) when I see it again.

    I think VonTrier is a great filmmaker and his work gets overtly analyzed and critisized because of his personality.

  15. I felt confused about those things too! I wish they told us where and why Michael went. And also, I wish I knew how Justine got so depressed in such a small period of time. It confused me quite a bit.
    I'll probably enjoy it more the second time, but I still loved it.
    And I think that von Trier is unfairly analyzed most of the time because of his personality. Which kinda sucks, because he's a damn good director.


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