Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, 2011)

November 08, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Melancholia Poster

No one could ever accuse Lars von Trier of being uninteresting. Even his most maddening, inaccessible films are compulsively watchable, if only to see what will happen next. Melancholia represents von Trier at his best and worst. Visually and thematically, Melancholia is a rich motion picture, full of nuances. Unfortunately, in his pursuit of an artistic vision, von Trier has thrown logic, physics, and coherence out the window. Even as a pure allegory, Melancholia is lacking - one shouldn't attempt science fiction, even in the loosest possible sense of the term, unless one has a vague idea of at least what constitutes Newtonian physics. The concrete aspects of Melancholia are so laughably bad that they make Michael Bay's breaking of similar natural laws seem reasonable by comparison. No one would expect a von Trier science fiction yarn to resemble Asimov, but the story journeys too deeply into the realm of the ludicrous for it to work on any level other than the purely symbolic.

Human society has been obsessed with the end of the world for as long as there has been human society. The most recent manifestations of this - the end of the Mayan calendar and the ramblings of lay preacher Harold Camping - are merely extensions of an innate fear of the inevitable. Movies as diverse as 2012 and Melancholia tap into this. Their goals are, of course, vastly different. A Hollywood disaster film wants to use high-priced special effects to give audiences a thrill-ride through an orgy of carnage. An art film like Melancholia wants to explore how individuals react in the face of certain death.

The back story, told in a prologue and advanced sporadically via background scenes throughout the film, is that a rogue gas giant planet named "Melancholia" is wandering through the solar system. After missing Mercury and Venus, it's on its way toward Earth. Initial projections are that a collision will not happen but, as we know from the opening scenes, those projections are incorrect. Earth will be swallowed up.

The encroaching apocalypse is portrayed through the eyes of two sisters, the blond and flighty Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and the grounded Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine is about to be married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), while Claire is the wife of the wealthy John (Kiefer Sutherland). Melancholia is not only the name of the rogue planet menacing Earth, it's a description of Justine's mental state. Despite appearing happy and cheerful to her friends and fiancé, she is actually deeply depressed. However, as the cataclysm approaches, Justine finds peace. Claire, on the other hand, begins to lose her grip the more apparent it becomes that the planet-ending collision will not be avoided.

Melancholia is unconcerned about disaster film conventions. There are no news broadcasts detailing the approaching end, no attempts are made to stave off the cataclysm, and there are no lovingly detailed shots of dying cities and crushed iconic monuments. When the end comes, it does so in typical low-budget fashion. Von Trier, as might be expected, has little interest in these things. Instead, he studies the psychological and personality changes of the main characters, specifically Justine, Claire, and John, as the end approaches.

The biggest evident flaw is that von Trier has not bothered to incorporate the advice of scientists into his screenplay. The concept of a giant rogue planet bulldozing its way through the solar system is so implausible as to fall into the realm of pulp science fiction. The end would not come suddenly - gravitational effects would make it a drawn-out process. Scientific accuracy (or something close to it) need not have changed the themes and ideas that are so important to Melancholia, but it would have made this a more compelling and intelligent motion picture. Von Trier doesn't care enough to make the effort, and that's a point of frustration.

The acting is of variable quality, with plaudits going to the two lead women and less-enthusiastic notices being reserved for everyone else. In what is unquestionably her most challenging and adult role to date, Kirsten Dunst shows a depth and subtlety that roles like Mary Jane Watson have not provided an opportunity to display. Charlotte Gainsbourg, one of the few actors to agree to a return engagement with the reportedly moody and difficult director, is solid in a less showy part than Dunst's. Of the supporting performers, Alexander Skarsgard has little to do, Kiefer Sutherland appears to have difficulty completely shaking off Jack Bauer, and Skellan Skarsgard (Alexander's dad), John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Udo Kier have glorified cameos.

The standout aspect of Melancholia is the way it looks. Stills from the movie could be sold for framing. Whatever his deficiencies as a screenwriter, von Trier knows how to stage a scene for maximum beauty and effect. For example, a shot of Dunst floating down a stream (used in the poster) evokes thoughts of a classical painting. CGI is used sparingly but to good effect. There are sequences in which the characters move so slowly as to appear to be frozen in time. No 2011 film to date, with the possible exception of The Tree of Life, has offered this degree of visual splendor.

An individual's appreciation of Melancholia comes down to this: those who are willing to absorb the experience on artistic merits alone and who are willing to overlook glaring practical and logical flaws, will appreciate von Trier's latest. Being more literal-minded, I was unable to forgive the script's gargantuan problems in the name of art. As a limited meditation on human nature, Melancholia succeeds, but as the more grandiose project von Trier intended, it falls short.

Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, 2011)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2011-11-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1