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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 3.13%
Average: 6.25%
Pretty Bad: 3.13%
Total Crap: 3.13%

4 reviews, 8 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"It's a Lars van Trier film, so the happy ending is everyone on Earth dying."
5 stars

As hooks go, it's tough to beat the one Lars von Trier uses to start "Melancholia": The world ends in such slow motion that time almost seems to be standing still. It's a fantastic scene of planetary destruction, and also gives the audience a close enough look at the family who will be the film's focus for the next two hours to assure them that even though this may be it for visual effects until the end, there's still plenty of opportunity for catastrophe on a smaller scale.

The next image is actually almost as memorable: A stretch limousine that is too long to navigate a bend in the road. That limo carries newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) to their wedding reception, where Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) await at the mansion (large enough for the back yard to be an eighteen-hole golf course). The reception is the type that would be a test of endurance even without the baggage being brought by the guests: Justine's father (John Hurt) and mother (Charlotte Rampling) use a captive audience to belittle each other and the institution of marriage; her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) announces that she's been promoted and then has his nephew (Brady Corbet) hound her for one last thing before the honeymoon; and Claire feels the need to remind Justine not to make a scene. And then, in the aftermath, Justine notices that Antares seems to have disappeared from the sky. It's being transited by a previously unknown planet, which will be named "Melancholia" and pass by Earth a few months later.

Rather a pessimistic name for a new world, but one which gives us more than a hint to Justine's true disposition early on. The exact pathology of her mental illness is not spelled out, but though her issues can remain hidden, they are large and have a tremendous gravitational pull of their own. This is apparently something that von Trier has personal experience with, and his script does an excellent job of using the wedding to smother his heroine: Everything is too big, there are arbitrary demands being made of her constantly, and even the family members who know her condition don't really understand. Even in the middle of what should be a joyous occasion and with the best efforts of her new husband, true happiness seems hard or impossible, and later, well, it's really going to just be too much.

While von Trier pours all of that into the script, Kirsten Dunst is the one tasked with getting most of it out, and she's just fantastic. Sure, in the second half, she's given a change in costume and cosmetics that reinforces just how worn-down and haggard she feels, but it's almost like she's fighting the almost-comically sexy wedding dress in the first half: Without being too broad or winking a contrast, there's a palpable conflict between Justine and the person she's expected to be - although it's pretty easy to tell when she's genuinely enjoying a moment and when she's trying to put on a happy face. There's exhaustion and resignation when she speaks, but never in excess.

With Justine relatively passive at points, the rest of the cast does get a chance to shine. Charlotte Gainsbourg has a less showy role, but she anchors a great deal of the movie as the sister who, while perhaps not as luminous as her sister, is practical and loving. Gainsbourg plays her as able to defend Justine as sick but barely holding back her frustration in adjacent moments. Kiefer Sutherland makes an interesting contrast to her, in that John's most notable characteristic is a short temper, but he does very well with making the moments where we see John's better nature count.

Indeed, for all that the supporting cast is filled with minor monsters while even the main characters have prominent ugly streaks not very far below the surface, Trier seems less interested in tormenting the audience than usual. Sure, the opening is so gaudily slow that it's only the music that keeps the audience from wondering if there's something wrong with the projector, and there's a moment toward the end which seems to exist only to make Claire and Justine seem shallower and meaner than the rest of the film implies, but they're isolated moments. For a long movie that consists of two scenarios where not a lot happens, it's smooth enough sailing for even this notoriously impatient viewer, and Manuel Alberto Claro's photography is often downright gorgeous. And while the script has some needlessly dumb science, its ambiguities are well-constructed enough that to work however the audience is inclined to interpret them.

Of course, Lars van Trier is still Lars van Trier, and even though this is, for him, a fairly accessible film, there's still a number of potentially off-putting ingredients. He's still the sort of guy who fills a movie with miserable people for the express purpose of making the end of the world not entirely a downer ending. But there is something hopeful and positive underneath all that, and it's worth finding.

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originally posted: 11/10/11 15:03:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/30/19 Edler Not my cup of tea. The theme is everything sucks and I don’t like that. 3 stars
9/01/12 Dr. Hoo Slow, depressing, multilayered, absolutely stunning. 5 stars
4/19/12 Marty Depressing, haunting. Silly message bout crazies being happier at apocalypse 3 stars
4/01/12 mr.mike The Earth did not move for me. 2 stars
3/10/12 die SHIT 1 stars
3/02/12 Katherine The end of the world never looked so beautiful. Mesmerizing. 5 stars
11/18/11 Man Out Six Bucks So many nested layers of dispair to which lovely Melancholia fulfills a beautiful death. 5 stars
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  11-Nov-2011 (R)
  DVD: 13-Mar-2012


  DVD: 13-Mar-2012

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