Movie Review by L.L. Soares
I have been a fan of Lars von Trier’s films since I first saw BREAKING THE WAVES in a movie theater back in 1996, and if I’ve learned anything since then, it’s that you can never anticipate what he’ll do next. This is the same guy who gave us the two Danish TV mini-series THE KINGDOM (released here as a feature film in 1994) and THE KINGDOM II (1997), which you might be more familiar with as the inspiration for Stephen King’s short-lived television series KINGDOM HOSPITAL (2004)—for the record, von Trier’s version was far superior; as well as DOGVILLE (2003), where Nicole Kidman played a gangster’s moll on the run in a town, that instead of sets, had chalk markings on a stage floor to signify the different buildings; to DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), with singer Bjork as a factory worker slowly going blind, who is trying to do everything she can to prevent her young son from suffering the same fate —with some big musical numbers tossed in, just for the hell of it; to 2009’s ANTICHRIST, which was the buzz of Cannes that year and very controversial for its tale of a couple’s journey through the grief over the death of their child—including a few scenes of genital mutilation—delivered with utter fearlessness by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe.
This year at Cannes, MELANCHOLIA proved just as controversial, but for completely different reasons. During a press conference, von Trier made some odd comments about Hitler that led to his being banned from the festival (he was trying to be funny, but let’s just say it was a complete misfire), while his film went on to win the Best Actress award for Kirsten Dunst in his absence. It’s too bad about von Treir’s banning, because he didn’t get to take part in and enjoy the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his film.
MELANCHOLIA is nothing like the horrific ANTICHRIST. It is painterly and rather beautiful, with great performances by Dunst (who played Claudia in the film version of INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, from 1994, and Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN movies) as Justine, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as her sister, Claire.
The movie begins with scenes frozen in time, like paintings, as classical music plays over them. They’re kind of an introduction for what is to come, and they could have seemed pretentious in other hands, but in von Trier’s they work in a spooky kind of way.
The film is then broken into two parts, one is called “Justine” and is about that sister’s opulent wedding at the country club owned by her brother-in-law (and Claire’s husband), John (Kiefer Sutherland, of TV’s 24). Claire and her husband have pulled out all the stops to make Justine’s wedding a big success, but as the ceremony goes on, we realize more and more that something is wrong. That the joy Justine is showing may not be real, and that her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Eric Northman on HBO’s TRUE BLOOD) comes to realize this as well, as the wedding reception slowly turns into an occasion for sadness.
The second part, called “Claire,” introduces us to the central image of the movie, the planet Melancholia, which has appeared in the sky and may be on a collision course with Earth. Time has passed since the first part of the movie, and we’re led to believe that Justine has spent some time in a hospital. She comes to stay with Claire and her family on their huge estate, waiting to see if Melancholia will bring about the end of the world.
John assures Claire that the world’s scientists have predicted that Melancholia will pass by, leaving the Earth unscathed, but she is not so sure of this, and suddenly, in these circumstances, Justine’s bouts with depression don’t seem so unfathomable. As Melancholia approaches, Justine becomes the strong one, as Claire becomes increasingly riddled with fear and self-doubt. Claire is particularly worried about what will become of her young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr).
The final scene is actually kind of haunting.
The name of this film is apt, as it is saturated with a great sadness throughout. The acting here is top-notch, especially from Dunst (who deserves her Best Actress award) and Gainsbourg (who is just as good), but also the supporting characters from Skarsgard and Sutherland to Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as the sisters’ parents; to Stellan Skarsgard (Alexander’s father) as Justine’s boss who conducts business even at her wedding; to Udo Kier as a wedding planner who is miffed that Justine and Michael arrive late to the ceremony.
This is the work of a director at the top of his game. Von Trier continues to be a filmmaker to watch, and I’m sure he will continue to serve up surprises on a regular basis. And, no doubt, controversy. Hopefully next time, he can avoid telling bad jokes at press conferences.
I give MELANCHOLIA four out of five knives.
(MELANCHOLIA is in limited release and is also available on some cable systems’ “OnDemand” feature)
© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares
L.L. Soares gives MELANCHOLIA ~ four out of five knives.