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The Independent Critic

Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Brady Corbet, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling
Lars Von Trier
Rated R
137 Mins.
Magnolia Films
"Making of" Featurette; Cast/Director Interviews

 "Melancholia" Review 
It was during my early 20's, shortly after the death of my wife and child, that my life became a series of suicide attempts ranging from minor gestures serving more as a cry for help to dramatic attempts borne out of a serious death wish. There were days during this period in my life when suicide attempts outnumbered bowel movements mostly owing to what had been, up to that point, a fairly shitty life.

It was with a rather warped sense of morbid joy that I sat back in my chair in borderline awe of writer/director and all-around controversial film dude Lars Von Trier's latest film Melancholia, in which two very different sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), serve as the foundation for a story that uses the symbolism of the end of the world to explore issues deeply personal and intimate.

Justine is a lifelong melancholic, a woman whose entire existence has been at odds with the world and anything resembling normalcy. As portrayed by Dunst, Justine fairly well lives her life in a state of emotional paralysis in a world that seemingly expects much from her but seems to give very little in return. Claire, on the other hand, is a rather joy-filled woman living within a luxurious estate with her wealthy husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr).

Melancholia begins, in a sense, where it ends as a rogue planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde pulsating in the background. The film's first few moments may evoke memories of Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, but there's a much greater degree of intentionality here and the visual journey that is experienced weaves its way into the stories of Justine and Claire with great ease.

Melancholia is a film told in two chapters, appropriately titled Justine and Claire. The first chapter opens with melancholic Justine in a stretch limo with her new husband of only a few moments, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The two are on their way to the secluded estate of Claire for a wedding reception paid for, as we are told repeatedly, by Claire's quietly arrogant prick of a husband. With symbolism both blatant and humorous, a bit of a surprise in a Von Trier film, their stretch limo has difficulty making its way along the small village's winding roads and Justine and Michael end up walking miles to reception and, of course, arriving considerably late. Very little actually happens during this reception, yet it's a remarkably eventful experience as family conflicts rise to the surface, simmering tensions explode and, despite the best efforts of Claire, the entire affair is a disaster. Justine and Michael are clearly mismatched, though Von Trier never allows this to become a caricature nor a quick and easy judgment. Instead, their vast differences are largely seen through the ways in which they express and, adversely, withhold their love for one another. It is clear that Justine is on the verge of compromising her very being by buying into the illusion of love, marriage, commitment, wealth and the various rituals that come with it all.

Kirsten Dunst, who captured the Best Actress prize at Cannes Film Festival this year for her performance here, easily gives her career best performance by boldly and bravely stepping into a role that required Dunst live into her character's deep, paralyzing depression and sense of being an outsider in a world she doesn't begin to understand nor, perhaps, does she even want to understand. Dunst's performance is obviously informed by a knowledge of depression, whether that be personal or intellectual knowledge. Dunst's masterful control of the performance is most evident when we transition into Claire, where Charlotte Gainsbourg's joy-filled and life-affirming character suddenly becomes gripped by fear of the planet Melancholia while Justine actually shifts into the sort of joy-filled surrender that seems to envelope most suicidal persons once "the decision" is actually made. Dunst goes from nearly catatonic to serene, a very subtle yet powerful shift. On the flip side, Gainsbourg grip on reality is slipping as she experiences, maybe for the first time, an awareness of being completely out of control of everything in her life.

Without question, both performances should be widely recognized throughout awards season.

The ancillary performances are almost uniformly strong, as well. Alexander Skarsgard gives Michael, Justine's well meaning yet rather clueless husband, a level of humanity that gives the audience a comfort with him that makes the whole scenario that much more complicated than if he'd simply been stereotyped as a rich snob or arrogant jerk. Kiefer Sutherland does a fine job as Claire's impatient and materialistic husband, while John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are spot-on perfect as Justine and Claire's bitter in different ways parents. Udo Kier is here and quite funny as an elite wedding planner who tires of Justine's screwing up his perfectly planned event.

Von Trier's production team is exceptional here in staging a visually compelling and convincing film that captures both intimacy and universality with equal success. The scenes involving the planet Melancholia are truly mesmerizing, and films with far higher budgets than Von Trier's $7.4 million have accomplished considerably less in the special effect department. Manuel Alberto Claro's camera work is largely handheld, an approach that may not work for all but does much to give the film a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability. Jette Lehman's production design capitalizes on the remarkable beauty of the Swedish castle in which Melancholia was largely shot, while also a muted look at times that fits perfectly.

Melancholia is the second film in a row for Von Trier that could easily be described as deeply personal following last year's controversial Antichrist. This film is far more excessible, perhaps because Von Trier achieves a level of vulnerability not often captured in his films. Released by Magnolia Films, Melancholia is currently in limited nationwide release here in the U.S. and is also already hitting international markets. While Von Trier is unlikely to ever experience wide release success, he has far too much artistic integrity and curiosity for that, Melancholia is a challenging yet beautifully realized film should result in considerable acclaim for both Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic