Movie review: ‘Melancholia’ (2011)

In theaters

“Melancholia,” written and directed by Lars Von Trier, 137 minutes, rated R.

“Melancholia,” the latest film from controversial auteur Lars von Trier, opens with an overture set to the film’s main characters slowly moving through the wet cement of doom and destruction. The filmmaker lets each frame linger, giving viewers an opportunity to absorb every detail like little works of art within a greater gallery.

“Melancholia” is a form of expressionism from the dispirit eyes of von Trier, who projects his misanthropic views through Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a lifeless bride whose depression is passed down from her mother (Charlotte Rampling). Through her marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), Justine tries to trick herself into happiness. So does her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), but it’s no use. No amount of money can fix Justine, and as the evening progresses, her instability intensifies.

The second chapter of “Melancholia” picks up shortly after the ill-fated wedding reception, when Justine returns to John and Claire’s villa in such a sorrowful state that she can hardly take care of herself.

In the time between the two chapters, we find that a planet named Melancholia has been hiding behind the sun, and is now set on a trajectory toward Earth that scientists call “a dance with death.” While Claire obsesses over the frightening prospect of the end, Justine revels in it, becoming an all-knowing prophet who welcomes death with open arms. It’s Justine’s only source of pleasure, as she baths in the nighttime glow of Melancholia, ‘cleansing’ herself of any remaining human emotions.

As the planet nears, Justine tells her sister that we’re alone in the universe, and that nothing will miss us when we’re gone. It’s a statement, not an opinion or a prediction. There’s a coldness in Dunst that I didn’t know the actress was capable of.

Dunst is a revelation here, pushing back against a role that pushes her, and rediscovering her voice in Justine. It will be a travesty if she is overlooked for an Oscar nomination. The same could be said for Gainsbourg, however, who plays an emotional tug-of-war against Dunst, bringing a much-needed human element to the story.

But make no mistake about it, “Melancholia” is von Trier’s apocalyptic symphony. In its somberness, the film finds beauty. In its unorthodox presentation, it becomes less of a movie and more of an experience that you will not soon forget. It’s proof that the tortured artists of cinema aren’t extinct, no matter what the Brett Ratners of the world might have you think.

Grade: A

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One Response to Movie review: ‘Melancholia’ (2011)

  1. Kate says:

    I’d like to hear more about how you feel Justine is being cleansed of human emotion under Melancholia. Can you provide more context as to why you believe this? I’d like to argue that the oncoming disaster is actually providing her with more control of the forces that swirl her emotional state about, which make her feel powerful and grateful, but I would argue she is never, ever unemotional in the film. Her emotions are just shifted and repurposed to tackle the upcoming disaster.

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