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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 Brett Gallman

"Kirsten Dunst and the Infinite Sadness"
5 stars

Lars von Trier’s latest film is probably the quietest, intimate cinematic apocalypse I’ve ever seen; in fact, the end is never even in doubt for viewers, who are treated to a hyper-stylized slow-motion overture that gorgeously paints the film’s motifs (a mopey Kirsten Dunst, wedding dresses, and golf courses) in gorgeous visual fashion. It all culminates in a rouge planet (which we later learn is called Melancholia) crashing into the earth and wiping out all life as we know it. Easily the biggest and boldest spectacle “Melancholia” has to offer, the sequence is stunningly brilliant and effectively sets the somber mood that suffocates the rest of the film.

After the grand opening, “Melancholia” shrugs off a typical narrative form by splitting into two chapters. Part one is titled “Justine” and follows Dunst’s character, particularly her ill-fated wedding night. We follow her as she sulks through the lavish party provided by her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) and encounters all of the people from whom she’s become detached: her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her dysfunctional parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), her boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and even her husband (Alexander Skarsgård, who is like a little boy in over his head with his new wife). We find them to be a rather unsavory lot, and one wonders just when that other planet’s going to show up and destroy them all.

That doesn’t happen until the second chapter (entitled “Claire”) begins to unfold, where we find that both sisters have become increasingly distraught over the prospect of colliding with Melancholia. One might say that this is where all of the action is (if one were to call it that), as the characters begin to move through the various stages of what we think the apocalypse would look like. Absolutely fascinating in its meditative gaze, we watch not with horror as the Earth is engulfed in flames, but with a certain denouement; this was inevitable, after all, as viewers have already seen it coming. This powerful, climactic moment almost sneaks up on you, as if you didn’t expect to feel so much emotion given the somewhat aloof nature of the characters.

I won’t say they become endearing, but that do become captivating; while the second half of the film is the stronger of the two, the first chapter is no slouch itself. Unfolding like a gloomier “Rules of the Game,” it reveals a sordid collection of self-absorbed bourgeoisie types. With the exception of a reference to a bizarre looking star in the sky, the endtimes subplot is completely muted; instead, we watch a lot of broken people doing broken things. Decades-old wounds are picked (particularly between Hurt and Rampling’s characters) as the wedding party slogs through the motions of attempting to put on a show for a joyous occasion.

At the center is the miserable bride, Justine, who is relayed with a searing performance from Dunst, who won Best Actress at Cannes for the turn. Though she’s always been one of the better actresses of her generation, this is a bit of a staggering revelation due to the bravery involved. She’s not only laid out bare in a physical sense (in a breathtaking scene that sees her basking in the glow of Melancholia), but also emotionally, as she finds a way to eventually unload all of Justine’s baggage: her anguish, fear, bitterness, and, eventually, her acceptance. One gathers that the end of the world comes as a relief to her, as if the apocalypse were a natural end to some kind of deeply tragic life.

The details of that tragedy aren’t exactly clear; her neurosis is obviously some sort of overwhelming psychological disorder, and Dunst keenly plays it that way: she doesn’t want to be sad, and it’d be easy to otherwise see her as some kind of spoiled little rich girl. Justine will recall the protagonist of Marquis de Sade’s novel of the same name; that character likewise endured a series of misfortunes, and I think von Trier wants us to draw out the comparison here. It’s a broad stroke, but it’s one that’s necessary in rendering this Justine an empathetic character. Everyone surrounding her is desperate for her happiness; in fact, despite the title, “Melancholia” is somehow about happiness, or the elusiveness of it anyway.

One of those people is of course Justine’s sister, Claire, who seems to be the more level-headed of the two. She’s the one with the seemingly stable marriage and the doting son, who also adores his aunt (and at times he fees like the only person Justine can reasonably connect with). However, as Melancholia begins its approach, Claire becomes increasingly fraught with anxiety; meanwhile, Justine becomes more resolved and acceptant. This makes sense, as the former has everything to lose, while the latter has everything to gain in the release of death. Just as the two planets collide, so too do these sisters, and the intertwining drama is magnificent thanks to the performances of each. While Dunst definitely deserves the praise she’s earned, “Melancholia” wouldn’t work without the restrained performance of Gainsbourg. She lies low for much of the film, subtly revealing the subdued desperation of someone who can’t accept her fate; by the end of the film, she’s crept up on you with her gut-wrenching attempts to cling to life.

In a film full of memorable scenes and images, one of the most powerful involves Claire taking her young son in her arms and running out of the house--to nowhere in particular. After all, there’s nowhere to go, no shelter to be found. However, this sequence reveals the underlying tragedy of “Melancholia”; whereas most apocalyptic films go with the bold spectacle and awe of the world ending, this one captures the loss of life on the individual level and the way we’ll lose each other. It’s not so much that the earth is going to go up in flames, but all of us will go with it.

Von Trier helms this film with masterful precision. The opening sequence is an exercise in pure film technique and is loaded with jaw-dropping imagery that haunts the further proceedings, despite their stylistic discordance. Much of the film is almost smothering in its intimacy since von Trier often opts for a handheld approach; when combined with the gloomy lighting, it creates a solemn effect, which is just as well--the wedding party in the opening sequence feels more like a funeral anyway.

On the surface, “Melancholia” is a bit of a wake for humanity and a compelling character study that observes the end on a microcosmic scale. It’s more despondent than scary, though Richard Wagner’s operatic prelude lends itself remarkably well to the horrific side of the story--at times, it feels like we’ve been sonically transported into a 50s sci-fi flick, which somehow just feels right for the material even though it’s far removed from that.

If we’re meant to take the film literally (and I believe we are), it operates well enough as a haunting drama about the inevitable end. However, it definitely lends itself to allegorical readings, what with the patently unsubtle naming of the planet Melancholia. On a purely symbolic level, the rouge planet is a projection of Justine’s own despair and its destructiveness; not only does it engulf her, but also everyone surrounding her that’s drawn into her lugubrious existence. Call it the most severe bout of depression of all-time, and it seems fitting that Justine would require an event on the scale of the apocalypse to finally please her.

I’m still scarred by von Trier’s previous film, “Antichrist,” a film that felt like a very physical assault, delivered with the forcefulness a mad genius. “Melancholia,” however, comes from a more somber, reflective part of the soul that manages a haunting sublimity.

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originally posted: 11/18/11 06:44:29
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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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