Year: 2011
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Region of Origin: Denmark
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 136 mins

Synopsis: Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide into the Earth. (Source)

RP’s Take: Lars von Trier — he’s been a divisive force in filmmaking since the beginning of his career, and this year was no different. Exiled from Cannes for making his infamous nazi comments (which I won’t get into), I find it very fascinating that his public persona is so caustic when compared to the fragility of Melancholia. A polished film by his standards, it really pivots away from the confrontation and aggression in his last film, Antichrist, yet remains markedly Trier. Tackling some very personal issues like debilitating depression and the recognition of mortality, it explores them in a way that is delicate and careful, all while being his most aesthetically captivating film to date.

In many respects, Melancholia serves as a departure for von Trier. It’s backdrop is massive (another planet colliding with Earth), a scope yet unseen for the preeminent Dutch filmmaker. Yet the story told is intimate, with sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggling in their own ways to cope with life and ultimately death. The prospect of total annihilation has two very different effects on each of them, with Justine’s personal abyss transforming into something else entirely under the crisis. Claire, on the other hand, is the one who cannot let go, who clings to life and is utterly frightened by the certainty and proximity of death. The juxtaposition of the two really put you on the different ends of a spectrum, and the two journeys straddle one another poignantly, reconciling in a converging final scene that is as haunting as it is marvelous. Another great juxtaposition is the cosmic grandiosity of the end of the world and the petty, trivial interpersonal bickering that takes place — a great commentary on perspective.

Speaking of Dunst and Gainsbourg, the two are totally committed to their respective roles. Gainsbourg is as solid as ever as the existentially acute member of the family, portraying a deep vulnerability and desparation in the face of uncontrollable events. But a strong Gainsbourg performance is to be expected, Dunst though, she bursts forth in a very emphatic and brave role as the utterly broken one. Wracked by depression to the point of complete dysfunction, Dunst lends the character an authenticity and fierceness I honestly didn’t think she was capable of. I guess that’s the purest aspect of this film, how even at your most lost and burdened there is still the hope to find one’s self revealed at its most basic level (both figuratively, and in Dunst’s case, literally).

Despite all the praise and accolade, there are flaws to be discussed. For one, as poetically and ironically uplifting as Melancholia is, it really is a rather simple movie. It lacks layers, and too much of what makes it affecting is apparent, without forcing the audience to delve deep. Some may chalk that up to authenticity or grounding (in a planet-colliding apocalypse?), but it can very easily be seen as clunky and could have been imbued with a bit more underneath its stunning  exterior. Secondly, I have issues with some of the more enigmatic characters, simply because they fail to really add anything to an otherwise tangibly stirring story. Particularly I’m thinking of the father Dexter (John Hurt) and Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who are both vexing and unfinished.

Nit picking aside, Melancholia has far more going for it than against it. It’s huge, poignant and paradoxically personal, perhaps a bit like Trier himself. Another candidate for the year’s best, it leaves an indelible impression that is unmistakably honest and sincere. Much like its divergant author, this film is a piece of art that bridges the contradiction between big and the small, the metaphysical and the vapid, and does so with an earnest curiosity that cannot be ignored.

RP’s Rating: 4.6/5

SG’s Take: In every sense of the word, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is the most beautiful movie I’ve seen all year. The visuals, music, performances, and most importantly it’s view on life, are all so hopelessly gorgeous you can’t help but feel affected. It’s the surprisingly sincere and delicate look at mortality, depression, and acceptance that you wouldn’t think to associate with a man who has courted controversy his entire career. From its masterful and dream-like prologue featuring Wagner on full blast, to the inevitably tragic yet optimistic end, it is a powerful and poetic work of art.

Melancholia isn’t an ordinary apocalyptic movie about heroics and trying to delay the inevitable, but one about the beauty of acceptance, and while its concept of a massive planet colliding into Earth may truly be larger-than-life (and the biggest in any von Trier movie), it’s just the backdrop to a much more personal and very intimate story of sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) facing their mortality. The story is focused on the two exclusively, never showing what the rest of the world is doing or thinking. What’s also refreshing about it is its ability to deliver such a real and genuine look at depression without being utterly dour and joy-less. There are some well placed bouts of humor every now and then by way of Udo Kier’s wedding planner character, and von Trier’s trademark ironic wit pops in every now and then without betraying the seriousness or message of the movie.

As for the performances, Kirsten Dunst’s Justine deserves every accolade it can get. Supposedly based upon Lars von Trier himself, her portrayal of a hopelessly depressed woman may be one of the best depictions of the disorder ever put on film. You’ve never seen her like this before, conveying a real emotional nakedness to her character. Even though she may have had it easy compared to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s turn in Antichrist, it’s still an achievement, and an indispensable part of von Trier’s beautiful impressionistic poetry. Gainsbourg’s performance as Claire, the overly-anxious but well meaning sister is also brilliant, as expected. She naturally and effortlessly manages to remain a perfectly calibrated contrast to Dunst’s character, which is only a testament to the pair’s cohesion in coordination with the movie’s realistic and brutally truthful writing.

Lastly, I have to stress that the visuals themselves are some of the most beautiful images you’ll see on screen all year — they just have to be seen on the big screen. Never a stranger to crafting wholly unique imagery, Melancholia contains some of von Trier’s biggest and most grand visions. The romanticism of his conceit is brilliantly juxtaposed using vividly rendered and meticulously framed picturesque conceptions for the movie’s more dramatic events, and shaky, doc-style filming for the more intimate and emotionally raw scenes. The very last scene in particular is one of the most powerful images I’ve seen on the big screen.

I really can’t find anything wrong with Melancholia. It’s hard to watch at some points, yet strikingly genuine and unjaded. It’s an articulate tribute to life itself, pinpointing the allure in its fragility and acknowledging that maybe the true beauty of everything is that it will most certainly end.

SG’s Rating: 5/5