Who knew the end of the world could be so beautiful?
Melancholia is the latest film by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Antichrist), who continues to prove that he’s one of the most unique storytellers in the industry. The film begins with the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), which is being held at her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law’s, John (Kiefer Sutherland), rather large estate. At first everything seems as it should, with happy guests, a beautiful bride and smiles all around; however, the evening quickly takes a turn for the worse when Justine’s melancholic mood strikes.
It must be said that this is a wedding reception that is so epic in scope that it rivals even The Godfather’s opening sequence – both in content, and in length. The first half of the movie focuses on Justine, and is aptly entitled “Chapter 1: Justine.” The entire half of the film takes place over the course of this one evening, with only a small fraction dripping over into the following morning in order to set up the second half of the film. The entire evening focuses on Justine’s inability to find happiness within herself, much to the frustration of those around her – as understanding as they may be.
The second half of the film, entitled, “Chapter 2: Claire,” focuses on Justine’s sister, months after the wedding reception. By this time, Justine is trapped in a full depression, to the point where she doesn’t even want to get out of bed. Claire invites her to stay with them, to which she hesitantly obliges. While all this is going on, we learn that a new, undiscovered planet called Melancholia has appeared in earth’s atmosphere. The planet wasn’t seen earlier, as it was hidden behind the sun, and now, scientists have confirmed, that in a few days it will do a “pass by” as it flies past earth, and heads back out into space.
Claire, however, believes that certain doom is approaching, and much to her husband’s dismay, continuously checks online to read the conspiracy theories about how people believe Melancholia is going to crash into the earth and end all life completely. Of course, her husband John constantly reassures her that scientists have proven that the planet will simply pass them by, and she has nothing to worry about; however, the seeds of fear have been planted in her mind, and as the planet gets closer, so do her beliefs that this may be the end of days.
Melancholia is a spectacularly shot film, and it is because of Trier’s choice to shoot it handheld that it’s as engrossing as it is. Trier said he wanted the look and feel of the film to be somewhat “documentary” style, and he delivered on that front. While the camera has motion to it, it’s never at any point nauseating, and it really does feel as though we’re stepping into the lives of these people, and experiencing everything right along with them. It was a brilliant choice that paid off greatly.
The story Trier came up with is also incredibly thought-provoking. While I certainly love the epic end of the world blockbusters that grace the silver screen over the summer months, it was a pleasant surprise to witness the same type of idea through the eyes of regular people, and get a true sense of some of the feelings that might occur if a situation such as this did occur.
The acting was fantastic through and through, and it’s quite obvious why Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes last year for her work here. It’s actually quite shocking that her work wasn’t recognized on the Academy level, and one has to wonder if Trier’s statements during Cannes about Nazis had anything to do with this film not being on the Academy’s radar whatsoever. That said, Dunst deserves high praise for her work here, which is arguably her best to date.
Gainsbourg (who worked with Trier on Antichrist, as well) is also perfection, really making Claire as interesting as Justine, while sharing a wonderful chemistry with Dunst. The difference with this chemistry is that the relationship between the sisters is a strained one, and the chemistry the two share really emphasize just how much work Claire puts into her relationship with her sister on a caregiving level, and how much of an emotional toll it takes on her as well. It’s a great balance and the two work wonderful together.
Sutherland is fantastic in his somewhat smaller role, and delivers some great scenes that help lighten the mood, even if they aren’t always supposed to. I was going to speak of his chemistry with Gainsbourg and Dunst as well, but then I just realized I’d be saying the same thing about Skarsgard soon enough and figure I might as well point out that the entire ensemble cast is pitch perfect, and really helps make this film as mesmerizing as it is.
The special effects also need to be taken note of, as there are some great shots here involving Meloncholia, as well as the entire opening sequence of the film that took over six months to create. It’s incredibly well done, and the way the visual effects are perfectly placed throughout the film as to not take away from the immersion of the audience is exactly what one hopes for when talking about visual effects.
Melancholia is a brilliant film, with an engrossing story, and an incredibly stunning visual style. The acting by all involved is fantastic, and the choice to shoot the film entirely handheld was the right one. The pace of this film may be a bit slow for some, but for those who are looking for something different, and something that will resonate for some time after all is said and done, seek out Melancholia, as it’s definitely not one to miss. Highly recommended.
The film looks and sounds absolutely fantastic in the Blu-ray transfer. The colours are crisp, and sharp, with a warm, welcoming feeling to the opening half, and a more somber, cool feel to the second half. The sound comes through perfectly, with loud classical musical scores bellowing down at the perfect times, and dialogue that comes through loud and clear.
The special features for this film aren’t abundant, however, they cover most of the ground one would want to have covered in four quick featurettes.
About Melancholia – This featurette runs at roughly 12 minutes in length and sees Dunst, Trier, Gainsbourg and a psychologist all cover the grounds of the film’s plot and themes. It’s an interesting watch.
Visual Effects – This is a quick, seven-minute featurette that talks about various shots used throughout the film, their original vision for the shots and how they turned out. It’s interesting to see that someone actually went up and recorded the northern lights for what looks like hours and hours, and in the final cut it looks like those images were only used in one shot (albeit a beautiful one.)
The Visual Style – This featurette runs at just over 10 minutes in length, and it’s here we learn about the choice to shoot the film handheld, and the reasons behind it.
The Universe – This is the shortest featurette, running at just over four minutes in length, and it features the visual effects supervisor as well as an actual astrophysicist, who was contacted by Trier’s, who wanted to know if something like this could actually happen, and the reactions that may come of it.
HDNet: A Look at Melancholia – This is a five-minute featurette that basically shows clips of the film, as well as scenes from the featurettes above.
There are also two trailers for the film to be found here as well.
Melancholia is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and arguably Trier’s greatest triumph to date. If I had to guess, I would say that his statements at Cannes helped push this film out of the more mainstream awards shows, however, don’t let that deter you from seeing it, as it truly is an astonishing piece of work.
Magnolia Pictures presents Melancholia. Written/Directed by: Lars von Trier. Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland. Running time: 132 minutes. Rating: PG-13. Released on Blu-ray: March 13, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.