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March 19, 2012

Movie Review: Melancholia (2011)

Directed by Lars Von Trier

Reviewed by Greg Goodsell

Anyone familiar with the films of Lars Von Trier and his Dogme ’95 buddies knows well enough not to expect light-hearted entertainment. Von Trier fearlessly pokes his handheld cameras into the darkest recesses of the human condition, as Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) will attest to. Turning his attention to the horror genre with Antichrist (2010), Von Trier then tackled the sci-fi doomsday drama with Melancholia, with the expected devastating results.

Buy Melancholia on Blu-ray or DVD

Above all else a tale of two sisters, Melancholia is cleaved into two separate sections. The first section, “Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst)” details a lavish wedding reception gone irrevocably wrong. Kirsten, freshly married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) is two hours late to her own wedding party, to the consternation of her older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Things go disastrously from the get go. Kirsten, selfish and just a little bit off, repeatedly leaves the banquet to prowl her sister’s rambling castle and adjoining 18-hole golf course. Justine leaves her husband, insults her boss and indulges in a quickie in a sand trap with a party guest. The girls’ parents are no help whatsoever. Their mom (Charlotte Rampling) gives a bitter diatribe against marriage to the guests, and their father (John Hurt) is a foolish old drunk who flees the soiree in lieu of consoling Justine. In a telling bit of characterization, Claire has to throw Justine’s bouquet to the party guests, after Justine is struck numb by the events all around her.

All of these petty concerns are put into their proper perspective went it is learned that a rogue planet, called Melancholia emerges from its hiding place behind the sun, set on a collision course with the Earth itself to destroy all life as the human race knows it. The second half of Melancholia, “Claire” is thick with dread as both Claire and Justine hunker down at the chateau to wait out the end.

Claire’s husband remains in a state of denial, saying that the planet will pass the Earth safely. Claire and John’s young son remains confused and frightened by it all. Justine finally awakes from her depressed, near catatonic stage just in time to give her family the courage to face the inevitable.

The baleful blue planet growing ever larger in both the night and daytime skies, Melancholia’s tone becomes oppressively oppressive and doom-laden. While there are many instances of show-stopping special effects in the film, Melancholia eschews all scenes of mass panic and hysteria on view in the other films of this ilk, such as 2012 (2009) and Knowing (2009). It’s the little things that ratchet up the coming catastrophe. The horses become restless in their stables, the butler doesn’t show up for work, the lights go out, the batteries in cars fail to start …

The closest equivalent Melancholia comes to in the scenes of mounting apocalypse are the ones found in Testament (1983) and On the Beach (1959), where all the characters go through Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief: denial (Keifer Sutherland’s character), anger (Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire), bargaining, depression and acceptance – both beautifully defined by Dunst’s Justine. Von Trier insists that the film has a happy ending, and given the circumstances, the characters are given the optimal thing to do under the literally earth-shattering circumstances. This is consistent with the themes found in all of Von Trier’s oeuvre: remember how Bjork finds time to sing and dance on her way to the garret in Dancer in the Dark.

Magnolia Home entertainment has more than risen to the occasion with a banquet of DVD extras. There are brief documentaries on the science behind the film (a giant planet could smash into the Earth, but the chances are pretty damn slim), the visual style of the film, its magnificent special effects – one of the few times where CGI is a welcome presence that benefits the story, and HDNet’s “A Look at Melancholia" that combines all of the three previous documentaries. There are tow trailers, one trading on Von Triers’ reputation and the other playing up the doomsday sci-fi elements.

Conspicuously missing from the extras is the notorious Cannes Press Conference where Von Trier jokingly professed his admiration for Adolph Hitler, realized that he had made an unforgivable faux pas and then tried unsuccessfully to dig his way out with a very embarrassed Dunst sitting next to him. It’s a pity, as this misstep detracts from a film that is definitely worth anybody’s time.

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