Melancholia

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Hard as it is for me to praise the controversial Lars von Trier, I have to admit that his latest film is unforgettable. Entertaining and uplifting? Hell no, as it glides towards cosmic destruction, but his work is never disposable and it lingers where many movies are forgotten as soon as the next one comes along.

His chosen subject this time is the death of our planet, no less, which is intertwined with the demise of a character through mental illness, call it melancholia. As a giant rogue planet also called Melancholia, bears down on us and we watch immobilised and transfixed in its glow, the event is a kind of a vindication of the bad behaviour of a very destructive person who ‘knows things’. It’s also a grim reminder that we live on the third rock from the sun, that an interplanetary collision is not impossible, and that our species is errr…finite.

We open with a hypnotic, surreal montage. In one of the images Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is trudging through grassland, with grey yarn clinging to her legs – and it’s ‘really heavy’. Moments later we see her in a voluminous wedding dress. Picture if you can the absurd sight of a white stretch limo travelling along a narrow, winding country lane with a bridal couple aboard, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and Justine, sitting in a cloud of white chiffon. The giggling bride even has a go at the wheel herself, but the couple arrive two hours late for their reception. On the way in, Justine notices that the planets above are not in the right alignment—as wedding day omens, this is not good.

The reception is at the country mansion owned by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourgh, whose character in von Trier’s last film committed a notorious act of self-harm) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). A short time into the sumptuous affair, Justine’s radiant mood goes into a slump, with the artful hand-held camera and the intrusive sound brilliantly capturing every scintilla of feeling, every flicker of doubt in her face. No wonder she won best actress at Cannes for this.

Perhaps it’s the way von Trier can immerse us in a single mood – it can be a bit like holding us underwater until we nearly drown – or the drive to grandstand on screen and off that has helped him earn his reputation. I’d say the cruel humiliations perpetrated on his vital female characters played by the likes of Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves), Bjork (Dancer in the Dark), and Nicole Kidman (Dogville), have something to do with it too.

Still, for all its excesses, Melancholia is an eerily compelling end-of-days movie experience from a master of bleak arts. A dance of death with an awesome, majestic beauty.

In a capsule: From a master of black arts, an eerily compelling end-of-days experience, that takes no prisoners in its awesome cosmic show. Beautiful, bleak and, as we have come to expect in the films of Lars von Trier, the women have a hard time.

4 stars