Saturday, 3 December 2011


Madman Films
Now Showing

In recognition of his own battle with depression, Danish auteur terrible Lars von Trier decided to make Melancholia, a film whose heroine, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), also suffers bouts of depression, and which climaxes with the end of the world.

That's not a spoiler: the opening sequence of von Trier's film is a beautifully composed, super slo-mo tableau (set to the score of Tristan and Isolde) of Earth's - and the film's characters' - final moments, one which may very well have non-fans of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life looking for the cinema exit.

Both films debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and both deal with the human condition, albeit in each director's unique and idiosyncratic way. And while Malick may have walked away with the Palme D'Or (for Best Picture), that had just as much to do with von Trier's much publicised press conference snafu as the perceived merits of each film as judged by the Cannes jury.

I'm not as well versed with von Trier's oeuvre as I should be (shamefully, I've only seen his 1996 effort, Breaking The Waves) but it's my understanding that, despite the end of the world as we know it, Melancholia is the director's least contentious and most accessible film to date. I mean, who doesn't love a wedding?

After said opening sequence, we're introduced to Justine who's just wed Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, in amnesiac Eric Northman mode); the pair's stretch limousine struggling to navigate the winding road to reach the reception where family and friends await.

It's a sign of things to come for their marriage which, if it didn't end in the early hours of the next morning following a disastrous reception - organised by Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), held on the sprawling estate of her brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), and stomped all over by her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) - would have come to an untimely end anyway.

Melancholia, the symbolic though unsubtle name given to a newly discovered blue planet, is travelling on a trajectory which will, according to the scientific community, bring it close into Earth's orbit. Of course, we know that orbit is a collision course and the end of the world.

Divided into two sections, Melancholia's first half (named after Justine) focusses for the most part on the wedding celebrations, where all in attendance are unaware of the approaching planet but which sees the bride quietly implode, gradually succumbing to her melancholic nature. The second half (titled Claire) focusses on the elder sister and how she copes with the impending arrival of the interloping planet, and hers and her families' mortality.

Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year and it's undoubtedly the most mature performance she's delivered in her almost 20-year career. And Gainsbourg is equally as good as the sister who, despite her controlled demeanour, is no less emotional. Say what you will about von Trier, he does wonders for his female actors.

Whether that emotion translates into an emotional viewing experience will very much depend on the individual. As involved as I was in this world, I was not moved by its coming to an end. That's not to say Melancholia isn't a fine film or not worth seeing. It is and on the big screen, where Manuel Alberto Claro's beautiful cinematography (when it's not whirling, hand-held, all over the place and inducing motion sickness) can be fully appreciated.

Perhaps as I did with Malick's Tree of Life, I will find greater rewards with a second bout of Melancholia.

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