Melancholia Movie Review
The world is about to end. Literally.
In the apocalyptic drama Melancholia, the latest movie from eccentric yet innovative filmmaker Lars von Trier, the lives of two sisters are turned upside down as a rogue planet threatens to destroy Earth. Beautiful, crisp and dreamlike, the movie is unlike any Lars von Trier movie seen before, but, unfortunately, unlike his other films, it's surprisingly flat.
Melancholia begins with several slow-motion sequences depicting character reactions to the end of the world. Birds drop dead out of the sky. A horse collapses. Electricity flies from the fingers of a stunned Kirsten Dunst. A small planet smashes into Earth, the impact eradicating all life.
In the first few minutes of the film, Lars von Trier does what even Roland Emmerich dares not to do: destroy the planet once and for all and kill every living creature in existence.
The fact that Lars von Trier, the man behind such strange yet fantastic productions as Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Antichrist, would even be interested in doing a movie about the end of the world, let alone one with special effects of any kind, or with a glossy high-definition style, is shocking.
Then the rest of the movie happens, and it becomes painfully clear why he was drawn to the story.
Part I is about Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a woman who is getting married under the roof of her rich brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Seemingly pleasant at first, the wedding soon turns into a walking nightmare. Justine's parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) argue and Justine herself becomes more withdrawn throughout the evening.
In Part II, which focuses on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), the planet Melancholia approaches and Justine has become helplessly depressed to the point where she can't even bathe herself. But with the end of the world imminent, Justine improves, accepting her fate, while her more stable sister begins to break down, driven by fear and anxiety.
Melancholia is Lars von Trier's most beautiful movie yet, its visual effects striking and intoxicating. For a movie with a budget of only $7 million, its graphics are as sharp and clear as those found in any big budget production. Though it's surprising that the movie even has special effects, von Trier establishes quickly that no matter how glassy his production is, it's going to be visually engaging, creative and unique.
Unfortunately, the story is shockingly dull, full of depressing, unflattering characters that never ask for the audience's sympathy and never get it. The movie isn't a survival tale, nor is it a disaster picture - it is a quintessential Lars von Trier character drama - but its disregard for protagonists with even the slightest inkling of likability makes it hard to become compelled by his story. Regardless, and even if it had characters that weren't emotionally distant or disturbed, Melancholia is long and feels longer, a slow boil drama that never boils over, even when the entire planet's surface is up in flames.
As with all Lars von Trier movies, Melancholia isn't for everyone, but for someone who has loved much of his other work, the film doesn't grab hold as expected.
Despite its storytelling flaws, there is no denying that Melancholia features the best performance of Kirsten Dunst's career. Though her character is hard to relate to, she embraces Justine fully, giving a believable and frustratingly immersive performance. Even when she's happy she's sad, and her depression is so real and vivid that it affects the audience likewise. It's not a pleasant feeling, but the fact that Dunst is able to affect anyone like that with a movie is remarkable.
Melancholia is not a great movie. It's nowhere near von Trier's best work. In fact, it's sort of boring. And yet Dunst's performance and the intoxicating visual approach the director uses are so impressive it's hard not to recommend it. I won't, but Melancholia is not without its merits.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.