Review: Beautiful and Haunting, ‘Melancholia’ is a Masterpiece

Of all of the “controversial” Directors out there, I have the least experience with Lars Von Trier.  His movies have more or less always been the wrong kind of controversial for my tastes.  As much as I love dark subject matter, gore, violence, and a profound story, I draw the line when it comes to having to watch Charlotte Gainsbourg cut off her clitoris.  Thus, it was out of personal preference and indifference that I’ve managed to thus far not see a single film by Von Trier, but after watching his latest effort, Melancholia, I think I may just have to change that.

Told in two acts, Melancholia tells the story of depression and human connection.  In the films first act we follow Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) a newly wed couple attending their wedding reception as organized by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) on their beautiful home / resort / 18-hole golf course.  Before all of that kicks off however we’re treated to some of the most beautiful shots put on-screen this year.  The film opens amidst a dream-like sequence of events that we’re lead to believe take place during the destruction of the planet Earth.  A planet, aptly named Melancholia, has come out from hiding behind the sun and is on course to either just pass by Earth, or completely destroy it.  The end of humanity has never looked so beautiful.

The film’s open is a prophecy of sorts, when the human drama begins the characters are unaware of their planet’s impending doom.  But as Melancholia makes it way towards their world, so does the symptom from which its name derives.  Justine is in a bit of a funk.  For all intents and purposes she should be happy.  She’s just married a handsome, talented man who loves her.  Her family has thrown her a lavish and expensive party in honor of their marriage.  Life is great.  But such is the nature of depression, no matter how good life may seem on the outside, as Justine explains it “feels like [you’re] running through a bog” on the inside.  Because of this bog Justine’s seemingly perfect life self destructs, and like the planet that’s quickly heading towards Earth, she takes everyone down with her.

In act two we follow Justine’s sister Claire as she tries to bring her sister back to health.  At this point the world is well aware of the planet Melancholia and the potential destruction it could wreak.  Helpless, but wanting to stop one Melancholia from destroying her world, Claire sets out to eradicate her sister’s depression.  To say more would dampen the effect of the film’s unofficial third act, but suffice it to say Claire is unsuccessful in both regards.

The film is backed by a beautiful orchestral score that works to enhance both the beauty, and horror of the film.  As it’s characters descend into melancholia, so does the music that supports them.  Initially starting whimsical and joyous, as the film progresses it’s score becomes more sinister, almost antagonistic.

Performance wise the entire cast is firing on all cylinders.  Dunst and Gainsbourg are easy standouts, both actresses giving the performances of their careers.  Gainsbourg particularly, it would truly be a shame if she were to be overlooked come awards season.  It’s also nice to see Keifer Sutherland getting a meaty role that doesn’t involve killing terrorists.  He seizes the chance to shine and gives a sympathetic performance as a man desperately trying to keep order and peace in a house where neither have ever been welcome.

Melancholia, as the name implies, is not a happy movie.  It’s deeply cynical, and somewhat depressing.  Von Trier has absolutely nothing nice to say about his subjects.  Through his lens humans are petty, insufferable creatures who completely deserve the giant ball of earth he’s sent on a collision course with their world.  But, as depressing and cynical as it may be, I never once felt removed from the film.  Through his expertly crafted relationships, as flawed as they may be, and his beautiful aesthetic style, Von Trier has created his masterpiece.

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Categories: Reviews

Author:Ryan Crockett

Super-geek and cinephile, artist and writer, Ryan Crockett knows way too much about the French Revolution.

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