Melancholia

Movie Review #835: Depressing and unconventional.

★★★½
By Alexander Diminiano
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Drama, Sci-Fi
Rated R (contains graphic nudity, profanity, sexual content)
136 minutes

“Melancholia” opens with a rather polarizing prologue. I became more and more unsure of what I was watching at this early point in the film. What is Lars von Trier trying to say? I kept asking myself. This is a director who gives us ten whole minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey”-esque visuals to open his movie. In other words, we’re led to think his strange preface is told by means of symbolism and virtually nothing else. This isn’t so, though. The opening to “Melancholia” is incredibly straightforward, in fact, and all it is doing is setting up the story for what will come into play later on.

The film is separated into two somewhat distinct parts. Part one is called “Justine,” and part two is called “Claire.” Justine and Claire are sisters in “Melancholia”, and while Justine plays a more prominent role in the movie, their rivalry is driven to the proverbial “point of no return” in the story. Even from the very beginning, we can tell this isn’t going to be a happy story. A wedding has just happened, and although the bride is seen smiling, wearing white, and touched by the rays of the sun flowing through the window, all the happiness in these shots is washed away by the taunting, nervous cinematographic technique. The camera is like its own character in this way: an antagonist residing in Hell, and we see every moment and action through its demonic little eye.

This is both a science fiction and a drama, though it’s in the drama that we meet characters who are just slightly unnatural, likably and yet disturbingly. Kirsten Dunst plays her part of Justine exceptionally. As I have stated, and will later state again, she is in a falling-out with her sister Claire, who is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Claire is married with kids; her husband is played by Kiefer Sutherland, whose performance makes the movie all the more tense to watching.

How often do we find wedding dramas that focus on an extremely unhappy couple, where the wife suffers depression? Maybe in all these Hollywood movies, Julia Roberts has always played a character suffering a very mild form of depression, but “Melancholia” is not a Hollywood movie. It is a Danish-Swedish-French-German co-production, produced in the English language, written and directed by maverick filmmmaker Lars von Trier. The movie depicts a female lead in such a state of depression that she cannot bring herself to attend her own wedding reception. As its title may or may not imply, “Melancholia” is a very depressing movie. Its nighttime setting and dim lighting add to that to make us feel inexplicably alone, even isolated.

“Melancholia” tells two stories. One I have already brought up. This story narrates the fatalistic feud between two sisters, Justine and Claire. At the same time, as we discover at the end of part one and more deeply in the beginning of part two, a planet on the other side of the sun, known as Melancholia, has flown out of orbit and come hurtling toward Planet Earth unstoppably. “Melancholia” is a drama, but also a science fiction. The first act grabs us–and holds us there–with its dark voyage through human emotion. The second act expands on this drama, and additionally explores sci-fi elements within the story. One aspect that seems to constantly highlight both acts, and in so many different ways, is the recurrence of excerpts from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. It truly brings out the mood in scenes when Kirsten Dunst lies nude under the glow of Planet Melancholia, and when, in the finale, Claire falls to her knees in the middle of a hailstorm, suddenly realizing that her life could be over at any moment.

“Melancholia” does have its slow spots, but I’d rather not worry about them too much. Yes, they do take away from the experience. No, they don’t take away from the fact that this is a very well-executed movie. “Melancholia” is overall extremely tense, and then even more so during its last twenty minutes. And then it closes its curtain, leaving us with beautiful uncertainty.

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