Movie Review: Melancholia

How evocative can an indie apocalypse film be without the explosions, CGI and special-effects gimmicks of a blockbuster?

“Melancholia” gives us the answer: Earth-shatteringly haunting.

Just the first seven and a half minutes of the film blow the viewer away with its stunning photography and powerful score. The first time you see it, it may seem like a mishmash of different artistic expressions with very little meaning, but as the film progresses, the plot and cinematography recall everything seen in that first sequence. You come to realize it’s not just terrifying and beautiful; it has meaning beyond what we usually see in films these days.

“Melancholia” tells the story of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), two sisters with a dynamic relationship. Justine clearly suffers from depression throughout the film, however it isn’t blatantly said; instead, we see Claire try to nurse her back to health after her wedding falls through. What could be seen as a story of shaky sisterly love is dominated by the premise that Melancholia, a gigantic blue planet, is spiraling slowly toward Earth. The scientists say it won’t hit our planet (it will just “fly by”), but is that true? You get your answer at the end of the prologue, and let’s just say that it’s a pretty terrifying scenario even before the opening title pops up in a blinding black and white.

What Lars von Trier’s film does, however, is examine the human condition. As it is well known, “melancholia” used to be the term used for “depression,” and we see Justine suffering through it during the whole movie. That’s what is so deep about this apocalypse film; not only does it study the way the Earth ends, but it also explores the human condition.

I’ve never really had much respect for Dunst as an actress; “Spiderman” and “Jumanji” are among some of my least favorite films, and part of that I accredit to her. As a child she was great in “Interview with a Vampire,” being the only good casting, apart from Antonio Banderas, in what should have been a much better adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel.

This summer I opened my mind and watched Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” an arthouse film riddled with intentional anachronism; my view of Dunst changed. Even more so, “Melancholia” totally reversed my opinion of her as an actress, and it’s quite clear now that artistic indie films is where she should stay. I see an Oscar nomination in her future.

Gainsbourgh and Keifer Sutherland give equally excellent performances, as do the Skarsgards (Stellan and his son, Alexander). I have to take a minute to reiterate on Sutherland, however, because his role as a disputable antagonist is so powerful I forgot I was watching who we’ve all come to know as Jack Bauer from “24.” As the film unfolds, you’re not sure to trust him, or even like him, and Gainsbourgh delivers a fantastic performance as the loving spouse who faces the same dilemma as the audience.

This was my first von Trier experience, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not until after the film did I recognize him as the infamous director of “Antichrist,” the horror film that left people catatonic at the film festivals a few years ago. “Melancholia” left us in just as much shock, however without the queasiness of a “Hostel”-like film. I can’t equate the walk-out-of-the-theater feeling to anything else; when I walked out of “Inception,” I was absorbed by trying to figure out the ending. When I walked out of “Melancholia,” I was deeply disturbed and still quaking from the very concrete ending. And it took me a few hours to recuperate.

A film that latches on to you and refuses to let go: that is the mark of a true piece of art.

The verdict: Viewer beware! Those uninterested in artistic, mind-bending indie cinema won’t enjoy “Melancholia” as much as I did. For those who do like having your head messed with, emotions twisted and worst fears put out onto 35mm, head to the nearest theatre now.

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