Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia (2011) – Melancholia is a movie that is every bit as cheery as its title would imply. How can you tell that always-unnerving Danish director Lars von Trier has made a downer? Well professionally disconcerting German actor Udo Kier appears as comic relief (he is actually kind of funny in the part). The title actually refers not to the mood disorder (though that’s plenty present in the film) but to a new planet that has been discovered “hiding behind the sun” that will pass by Earth. Of course there are many a doom-crier who say it will HIT Earth destroying all life. Three guesses which camp is right. Yes, this is a movie that BEGINS with the end of the world (so I don’t consider it a spoiler) as portrayed in several beautifully composed slow-motion shots of the characters we will be introduced to in the next two hours totally losing their shit in the face of impending destruction. Melancholia smashes into Earth and we back up a few months to get to know our cast of ill-fated characters.

We back up a bit to the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). They try riding in a limo down a very narrow road to the reception and end up being several hours late (Kier plays the pissed-off wedding planner). The reception is being held at the home of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine smiles for her guests, including her father (John Hurt), her boss (Stellan Skarsgård), her new co-worker (Brady Corbet), and her unromantic mother (Charlotte Rampling) who does not believe in marriage (making her a rather unpleasant wedding guest). Justine however is less than joyous on her big day and frequently sneaks out of the reception to have something of a breakdown. Poor Michael is clearly in love with her but from day one, this marriage is doomed. At least he won’t have to be broken-hearted for too long, on account of that whole end-of-all-life-as-we-know-it prologue…

The second part of the movie focuses on Claire. Melancholia has been identified and John, being an amateur astronomy enthusiast, is very excited to watch it pass by. Claire, on the other hand, is freaked out by the doomsayers who speak of the impending collision (which is not widely accepted as inevitable). Claire is also tasked with caring for her young son (Cameron Spurr) and her now barely-functional sister. Oddly enough though as the end draws nearer and nearer, Claire gets more frazzled and Justine seems more collected. Earlier in this half of the movie she couldn’t even take a bath on her own, but as everyone’s running around denying the approaching end (particularly John) Justine seems to be getting more tranquil. She knows that the world is going to end. The comedian Christopher Titus used to say that dysfunctional people were more qualified to handle adversity. Watching the movie I couldn’t help thinking of that. Responsible sister Clair loses her shit while train wreck sister Justine seems pretty poised.

I mentioned when I watched von Trier’s earlier Antichrist, that Charlotte Gainsbourg gave a fearless performance. While it was impressive, Gainsbourg has had a few great roles so this level of raw intensity was not totally unforeseen. In Melancholia, the absolutely fearless performance belongs to Kirsten Dunst, which I was NOT expecting. I’ve never particularly disliked Dunst but I’ve always written her off as lightweight. In Melancholia she is anything but. Gainsbourg is still incredible in her part, Dunst just has the showier role. Alexander Skarsgård has a sort of puppy dog vulnerability in the role of Michael. Kiefer Sutherland plays an easily irritated and somewhat pompous character, but not in way that is unsympathetic. John Hurt and Stellan Skarsgård also do well in smaller supporting roles. Melancholia is, as I’ve mentioned, not an upper but it does have a certain beauty to it. It’s a moving work of art and I recommend it.

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