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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 Rob Gonsalves

"A giant among ants."
5 stars

In "Melancholia," which has just gotten a theatrical release after a month of playing on cable on-demand, it’s the end of the world as we know it and Kirsten Dunst feels fine. It’s about the only time she does feel fine.

As Justine, an unreachably depressed young woman, Dunst takes her place alongside a gallery of other female sufferers in the work of writer-director Lars von Trier. Like those others, Dunst puts in a career-best performance, sinking under the weight of self-lacerating despair. Justine’s condition is never explained, as it often isn’t explained in life (although her parents are played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling — there’s a big clue right there). In the movie’s first half, she gamely tries to slog through her wedding party, and the people closest to her, like her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), know full well how much work goes into each empty smile.

That the world ends in Melancholia — extinguished by a rogue planet also called Melancholia — is revealed in the opening moments; we get squished to the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which recurs throughout the film as the wayward green ball in the sky draws closer. After that, we endure the wedding party, held at the sumptuous country house of Claire’s filthy-rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who fancies himself an armchair astronomer. Justine has married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a well-meaning dud who comes off as though Andy from Parks and Recreation had wandered into an apocalyptic art film. He doesn’t last long. In the second half, Justine, having shed Michael and most of what’s left of her sanity, is living with Claire and John and their little son. As Melancholia bears down, the formerly stable Claire grows more and more frantic — John assures her the planet will harmlessly pass by, but she can’t bring herself to believe him — and Justine seems more and more placid. Her life is already over. Global death is just a formality.

Von Trier went through a period of depression a few years ago, and he worked it out in his previous film, the notorious Antichrist, in which nature seemed charged by grotesque and demonic energy. Melancholia is something of a bookend piece, equally gorgeous, not nearly as physically appalling, but almost as disturbing. It’s not a “horror movie,” exactly, but few images at the movies this year have been as frightening as the view of Melancholia growing larger in five-minute intervals through a handmade planet-viewer. At heart, it’s an epic about response to life and death. John, of course, seeks to master the mystery, just like Willem Dafoe in Antichrist and all the other clueless men in the von Trier portfolio. (The filmmaker gets tarred with the “sexist” brush a lot, but his men are idiots and his women routinely win his actresses top prizes.) Claire clings to her life so tightly she can’t bear the thought of nothingness, while Justine has burned through despair into a kind of Zen-Buddhist shrug. If Antichrist was written in the throes of depression, Melancholia is a report on the condition after the fact.

The symbolism may strike some as a little neat: Melancholia has been “hiding behind the sun,” and then it emerges, blocking out everything else — much like the mood it’s named after. The entire grandly morose film could be read as a suicidal woman’s reverie on her own world ending. (Many depressives, squeamish about taking the final step off the ledge, fantasize about a vast catastrophe that will take their decision and their responsibility out of their hands.) But von Trier’s filmmaking, as always, is elegantly alive, never sodden with the script’s significance. The first half, well-populated by von Trier regulars like Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier, tosses in enough eccentricities (what’s up with John Hurt tucking spoons into his jacket pocket?) to counteract Justine’s moping. The second half is sparser and stiller, focusing on the sisters and their emotional preparation for doom.

Images may stick with you: a horse falling to the ground in extreme slow motion; Claire attempting to outrace the apocalypse in a golf cart; Kirsten Dunst’s features ravaged by loathing. Those looking for sharp internal logic should look elsewhere. Lars von Trier uses a literal worldwide disaster as a backdrop for a tiny, specific personal story about a woman who’s sick of pretending to be happy and who can’t help throwing everything away, cutting herself off from life so definitively that the end of the world is just the last of a lifelong list of things she can’t control. Giving up the illusion of control has delivered her into a kind of grace. Justine has already died every time the hated sun has risen yet again; soon it will all be over.

Von Trier’s plotting isn’t always up to the level of his visuals or his emotionally-loaded philosophizing, but on the increasingly timid stage of world cinema he continues to be a giant among ants.

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originally posted: 11/14/11 15:57:10
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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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