Review: Melancholia


[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the New York Film Festival. It has been reposted (with a second opinion!) to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.]

The very first article I wrote for Flixist was about comments Lars von Trier made after the premiere of Melancholia, so it seems fitting that I should be one writing this review. Despite an interest in his controversial statements, I have never actually seen a von Trier film (with the exception of The Five Obstructions, which doesn’t count). Sure, I have heard about them. People say they are brilliant, disgusting, degrading, and pretentious, but I had not had any first-hand experience. In that same vein, I went into Melancholia with only the knowledge that Kirsten Dunst had apparently done a great job. I never watched the trailers, and I didn’t read a synopsis. I was interested, but I had no real interest in spoiling myself. If you are like I was, devoid of any knowledge of the film, stop reading and go see the movie.

If you have some idea of the film’s plot and want some further justification for my recommendation, keep on reading.

Director: Lars von Trier
Release Date: 11/11/11 (Limited)
Country: Denmark

First thing’s first: I hated the opening to the film… when it happened. It is approximately ten minutes of incredibly slow motion shots, most of which feature Kirsten Dunst or planets, set to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The sequence is beautiful and backed by beautiful music, but there is no context for anything. It’s just pretty, and that is only interesting for so long. A quarter of the way through, I started to wonder if this was what Tree of Life was like. Halfway through I began to wonder if the entire film was going to be like this. Eventually it ended, with an admittedly awesome final shot. A poor first impression, to be sure. With more than two hours to go, I readied myself for a beautiful, pretentious mess. Fortunately, I was disappointed.

Melancholia is a film in two parts, neither of which have much to do with the other. The first part, “Justine,” shows the party following the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). It is clear early on that something is not right with Justine. The nature of her problems are never really explained, but she spends most of the party away from the guests, much to the chagrin of her husband and the dozens of party guests. The incredibly expensive event was set up by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and financed by Claire’s husband John (Jack Bauer), both of whom get increasingly stressed out by Justine’s absence as the night wears on. Justine, who started off the night in an acceptable state, completely falls apart by the end. Unfortunately, I need to spoil the ending of part one to explain part two. It is not a shocking twist, but if you want to go in as blind as possible, don’t read the next sentence. SPOILER ALERT: By the end of the night, the marriage is over.

Melancholia 2011 Kiefer Sutherland telescope

I’ve said the word “beautiful” a lot, and there’s a damn good reason for it. The film is absolutely gorgeous. The visuals are oftentimes breathtaking, especially in moments when Melancholia itself is involved. If you want to see something that will blow you away with its visuals, you need look no further than this film. The colors become increasingly muted over the course of the film, which works well with the shifting in tone. On the cinematography side of thing, Melancholia gets kind of strange. von Trier takes the shaky cam effect that people seem to hate so much and takes it even further. Not only is image constantly moving, it also zooms in and out and shifts focus. The changing of focus is hugely noticeable, and at times the entire scene will be out of focus while it appears that von Trier’s cinematographer is using a new camera for the first time. Strange as it might be, it actually kind of works. Unstable cameras have never really bothered me particularly, and I have no qualms with strange uses of focus (The Social Network also did it too). More than that, it fits with the uneasy tone of the film.

I added the caveat earlier that I hated the opening “when it happened.” To clarify, I still think the sequence was overly long and a bit boring, but I must acknowledge that everything shown in those long, slow shots became relevant later in the film. No matter how strange they seemed, they still had some basis in the film itself, and for that I must commend the director. I thought it would be, at best, the kind of thing that I would have to think about after the fact, and pretend to justify in some way so I didn’t spend all of my time angrily contemplating it, but I was wrong, and I say that very happily. 

Melancholia 2011 Kirsten Dunst Charlotte Gainsbourg snow

The acting is absolutely top notch. Kirsten Dunst definitely deserved the award she received at Cannes. Her deterioration is completely believable, and the reactions of those around her are equally so. Kiefer Sutherland’s character was especially interesting as an outsider to the family, and he played it very well. Charlotte Gainsbourg also does a good job, although she was not quite on par with Dunst when it came time for her to break down. Skarsgård played his tragic character well, and I honestly felt sorry for him when things turned out the way they did. Other notable characters include Justine and Claire’s father (played excellently by John Hurt) and the man who planned the wedding party (Udo Kier), who provided some much needed comic relief. Frankly, there were no bad casting decisions. An excellent ensemble, through and through.

Melancholia is a fascinating film. It’s gorgeous, fantastically acted, has some amazing sound design, and I am very glad I saw it… but it’s not perfect. There are a few moments in the film where the motivation behind incredibly significant events were completely lacking, which detracts from those fantastic moments where everything clicked. The other big problem is the beginning. As I noted, it is mostly problematic without any kind of context, and it fits by the end. If you know, for example, that Melancholia is a planet (and you do now), it will already be a less confusing experience for you. Even with that knowledge, however, the sequence runs too long. It’s an irritating, beautiful ten minutes, and it makes a terrible first impression. Despite those issues, you should see this movie. If you can catch it in theaters, the experience will be more than worth the price of admission. If not, you should see it nonetheless. It’s not disgusting or degrading, and the pretension is no higher than any other art film. Perhaps what they said about von Trier isn’t true. Perhaps this film is simply unlike his others. Either way, it deserves to be seen.

Sam Membrino: Melancholia, the latest film by Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, is as far from a tasty pastry as one can get. And this isn’t such a bad thing. With what can only be described as a pandemic of apocalypse films (2012, Contagion, etc), Melancholia takes a more focused approach to the end-of-life-as-we-know-it than many other films you might catch (before the world ends in 2012, of course). Von Trier, with the careful patience of a tightrope walker, ambles carefully through this journey, drawing no doubt from his own battle with debilitating depression. But he has, of course, managed to transcend this struggle and gaze upon it with an almost reverent respect, and the film shows this introspective vision. Courageous performances by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg bring this beautiful film to fruition, and the careful ebbs and flows of this film prove Von Trier’s strength as a craftsman both respected (and vilified) by the filmmaking community. The emotional weight bearing down on the characters and the audience feels like an exponential addition to gravity itself, threatening to crush everything underfoot. A few directorial head-scratchers and a ho-hum performance from Jack Bauer (I mean Kiefer Sutherland) keep this from attaining higher glory, but if you aren’t afraid of the subject material and enjoy Von Trier’s unapologetic filmmaking, you could do much worse than this. 81 – Great.