‘Melancholia’ movie review: Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-world epic

Like most of Lars von Trier’s work, Melancholia is not for everyone; sly, brooding, slow-paced, and pretentious to a fault, it’s not going to win the director any converts, either. But for the brave, this is masterful stuff from a visionary filmmaker: an end-of-the-world epic on an intimate scale, haunting and memorable and sure to provoke spirited debate.

Those haunting qualities are greatly influenced by the opening and closing scenes, which depict – maybe – the end of the world. Shot in breathtaking super slow-motion (so slow that you may not even notice the motion in some clips) and set to excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra), they turn Melancholia into an unforgettable experience.

After showing us a collision between two planets, von Trier delivers his story in two parts. The first, “Justine”, is a wedding dinner sequence, impending apocalypse unknown or unmentioned. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård); she seems newlywed-happy at first, but soon deep-rooted emotional problems take their hold.

Not helping matters are the relationships with her mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her father (John Hurt), and her boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who uses her wedding night as an opportunity to get an advertising tagline out of her.

The second half of the film, “Claire”, turns the focus to Justine’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who hosted the wedding at her luxurious mansion home along with scientist husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Set some time after the wedding, Justine is now an inconsolable mess, barely able to function. And Claire has her own problems: a doomsday scenario threatens to end all life on Earth.

If Antichrist was a misogynistic assault on the nature of women (fleeting analysis of the film might lead one to the conclusion that ever since Eve, women are the root of all evil, or so says the director), Melancholia might be von Trier’s apology. Or it could be a sly satire on the fickle nature of the female kind (‘honey, the world is about to end – what can I do to make you happy?’) But consider the depth to which von Trier explores these two characters and their psyche, and their ultimate catharsis.

Of course, Melancholia could be about something else entirely. Also Consider: the opening scenes, and how they match up to the final ones. Consider a throwaway line of dialogue about an eighteen-hole golf course, and then an explicitly-depicted nineteenth hole at the climax. And what about the 678 beans? “It’s so incredibly insignificant.”

Dunst took home a Best Actress award at Cannes for her work here; it’s an intense, eye-opening portrayal, and anything less would have tipped her character into unintentional comedy. But for my money, Gainsbourg has the more complex role, and delivers the more impressive performance; she balances out all the melancholy from the Justine role, and even manages to earn our sympathy.

The excellent supporting cast also turns in memorable work; Sutherland, in particular, is unexpectedly effective. Udo Kier (as the wedding planner) and Jesper Christensen (as the butler) deliver some sly comic relief.

One quibble: the astronomical doomsday elements (which I won’t spoil here) aren’t entirely convincing. But neither are they explored at enough detail to warrant real concern.

Few films these days demand to be seen in the cinema, but Melancholia is one of them; not just to bask in the 2.35:1 visual splendor (courtesy of cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, who even manages to sneak in a few extraordinary shots in von Trier’s otherwise return-to-dogme stylistics in the film’s midsection), but to fully appreciate the Earth-rattling sound design, which turns the film’s final moments into an unforgettable experience.

With dwindling projection standards at Prague’s multiplexes (most of which are under new ownership), I can fully recommend Kino Světozor’s grand hall, where I caught the Czech premiere of Melancholia along with a sellout audience. As the film ended, and the speakers threatened to blow, the numbed moviegoers stuck around for the entire credits, which were bookended by two rounds of mild applause.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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