Melancholia (**)

melancholia ver111Lars von Trier continues to do things his way with ‘Melancholia’, but he also continues to have quality cinema evade his grasp.  When he announced that he was making a science fiction/end of the world type film next, I was foolish enough to believe that he might be trying his hand at a less obtuse flick.  How wrong I was.  This is von Trier again making a feature length therapy session masked as a movie.  While it’s nowhere near the graphic horror of ‘Antichrist’, it shares with that film an inability to keep you from boredom during the majority of the running length.  It’s a shame really, since Kirsten Dunst is outstanding here, but when the narrative shifts away from her in the second half, you’re left with little to like.  There’s a really interesting version of this story to be made, but von Trier almost intentionally seems to have gone in the other direction.  Fans of his work will likely enjoy him working at a lower decibel than usual, but other than that, I don’t really get what all the fuss is about.  Chalk it up as another disappointing Oscar hopeful this year, after ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’.  I won’t deny the ambition of the work, but I will quibble with its effectiveness, since it’s rather lacking in that field.

Mixing the story of a strained relationship between sisters and a potential doomsday scenario, the plot begins with the wedding reception of Justine (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).  The party is taking place at the palatial estate of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).  At first glance, all seems well, but there are cracks.  Justine is fascinated by a star in the sky that seems too close, one that John mentions shouldn’t be seen.  Furthermore, hints are being placed that Justine not only suffers from mental illness, but that it runs through her family (also on hand are her divorced parents Dexter and Gaby, played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, respectively).  To add more onto Justine’s plate, her employer Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) is after her to come up with a tagline for a new product of his.  As things begin to get the better of Justine, the wedding turns into a disaster.  The second half of the film takes place some time later, as the planet (now known as Melancholia) in the sky is getting closer and closer to Earth.  Justine is staying with Claire and John, who are in disagreement as to if the traveling planet will collide with Earth or not.  All the while, Justine (who the film has in the background now) begins to come out of her crippling mental state at the same time Claire is beginning to show signs of the same thing…

dunstThe one element of the film I have no complaints about is the acting.  First and foremost, Kirsten Dunst fully deserved her Best Actress prize at Cannes and should be in the conversation for an Oscar nomination.  She’s riveting in the lead role and easily gives one of the best performances by a female in 2011.  I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best performance von Trier has ever gotten out of a woman.  Dunst really digs down deep and absolutely wows you here.  The rest of the cast is high quality too, but they can’t compare to Dunst.  Charlotte Gainsbourg has a less hysterical role than in ‘Antichrist’, but she’s no less effective.  Alexander Skarsgard does a nice job with a different type of role than most will have seen from him before.  The rest of the cast does solid work in smaller parts, including the aforementioned Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt, and Charlotte Rampling.  Also on hand are Brady Corbet and Udo Kier, but it all comes back to Kirsten Dunst and her career best role.

Lars von Trier is a love him or hate him type of filmmaker.  Rarely does he produce a work that leaves you with a feeling of “meh”.  This is as close to that as it’s going to get.  Too low-key to really make any of the ideas von Trier is trying for stick out, you’re really just left with 2 hours and 15 minutes of people being nervous or sad.  Now, I get that the title of the film/planet kind of gives you that idea already, but it just isn’t enough to make a worthwhile movie that holds your attention.  His direction is seemingly meant to test your patience, and so is his screenplay.  There’s no sense of pacing, and as soon as things threaten to get interesting, von Trier switches the focus and frustrates you.  Frustration is a feeling that I felt quite a bit during ‘Melancholia’.  Even the prospect of seeing if the world will really end is spoiled by the first 5 minutes where he more or less spoils the flick for you.

‘Melancholia’ is nice looking and well acted, but frankly…it’s a real bore.  I really found little to like besides the acting, namely Kirsten Dunst’s performance.  I went into this wanting to like it and was actually rather interested in how Lars von Trier would handle the material.  Well, now I have my answer and you do too.  This flick is pretty much just a waste of time.  It makes sense that most of the word out of Cannes had to do with von Trier putting his foot in his mouth, since the film itself doesn’t have much to offer.  A spectacle with nothing spectacular about it, this movie is one that will fade away quicker than the sanity of the women in the film…

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Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.


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I actually really liked this one. I like von Trier’s Dogville and Breaking the Waves better; but I thought this one was still a marvel. I was impressed that one could pull-off such a quiet and serene “end-of-the-world” epic. I will say this line of yours comes across as a tad bit sexist: ” I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best performance von Trier has ever gotten out of a woman.” I tend to think the actresses are the best parts of von Trier’s films. Nicole Kidman, Emily Watson, Bjork … and Dunst and Gainsbourg here.… Read more »


This a way too harsh review, I loved the film especially Gainsbourg’s and Dunst’s performances…


I’m not sure you understood the movie. It wasn’t my favorite film of all time either, but it was an amazing attempt to parallel the feelings of depression and how someone without it may understand it. It didn’t really have anything to do with the end of the world, that was just a device.

Andrew Rech

Disagree strongly. I think this is one of Lars’ best actually. I watched it two nights in a row and I was never bored watching it so I can’t agree on the pacing. I think it’s a beautiful portrait of anxiety and depression, with magnificent formalism. Seriously probably his most visually gorgeous film. There’s certainly a lot to discuss about it so I can’t agree with your dismiss of it as a waste of time.

John H. Foote

I saw the film at TIFF and was stunned at the look of the picture and the lead performance — he knows how to work with actresses and Dunst does the finest work of her career here — is it that he pushes them further than most directors are willing to push, or simply that they choose to follow him anywhere? — it’s a typically bizarre film from the man, but is that not what we have come to expect from him? He does things his way, will not conform, and always pushes the envelope — the images he puts… Read more »


I strongly agree with this review. The film did nothing for me either. I was extremely let down by everything save for the cinematography. It’s a shame that such a talented cast was wasted by flat performances, predictable plot turns, and long, pretentious scenes that didn’t know when to end. Should’ve called this one “Melodrama” instead of “Melancholia”. Not to bitch any further but that scene of Melancholia decimating Earth was fairly cheesy. I think I would’ve liked this film a little if that was omitted.

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