Magnolia Pictures // 2011 // 135 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // March 19th, 2012
It will change everything.
The early career of Lars von Trier (Europa) coincides almost exactly with the beginning of my love for cinema. Everything I saw up through The Kingdom, even the super-pretentious Epidemic, I adored. Then, he made Breaking the Waves, which I was okay with, but it signaled the change that would soon become Dogme 95, which I loathe. Eventually, my level of hatred for his work reached boycott levels, but there was no way I could miss Antichrist, not with that cast and subject matter, and it floored me; a piece of the old director had come back. Little did I know what he would next have in store. Melancholia is a stunningly beautiful piece of cinema and the best movie the director has ever made. Finally, after so long in the woods, Lars von Trier has come home.
At one of the most uncomfortable wedding parties anybody is likely to attend, the newly-wedded Justine (Kirsten Dunst, Marie Antoinette) tries her best to hang on and enjoy herself, but she is overwhelmed with sadness and can only fake a smile for so long before she has to go off by herself to cry. Finally, after completely melting down, the party is ruined and her husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood) leaves without her.
Some time later, Justine returns to the palatial site of the disaster, completely wracked with depression. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, 21 Grams), tries her best to help, but her cool emotions and spiteful attitude make that difficult. To make matters worse, a giant planet known as Melancholia is heading toward Earth and, no matter how much people want to deny it, it may just mean the end of the planet altogether.
Before any of this takes place, we are presented with an eight minute, dialog-free sequence of shots that basically amount to filmed paintings. Surreal, stunningly beautiful, and set to the Richard Wagner's overture to Tristan und Isolde, this is an introduction with few analogs. The images are almost entirely still, but in each one, there is something in motion, slow and subtle as that may be. Freeze the frame anywhere during it and you'll find something of legitimate beauty, and as a complete unit, sets the tone of the film brilliantly.
While there's a somber mood from the outset, the first part actually contains more than a few moments of levity. Not just the wedding party discomfort type of humor, either. The first scene, with a stretch limo unsuccessfully trying to navigate the winding roads to the party, is hilarious in a shockingly traditional way. This is not the kind of thing I expect from the director, but I certainly welcomed the surprise. Justine is a lovable, incredibly charming woman, but her personality is clearly borderline. With a sister in Charlotte Gainsbourg, a father in John Hurt (Altered States), and a mother in Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter), I think I'd be pretty freaked out, too. All of them are screwed up in their own ways and, regardless of their insistence that all of this is for Justine, they can't keep their own neuroses out of her big night. Her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners) is possibly the worst of all. For all his money, enough to throw a party this lavish on his own castle property, he lords it over her, making her admit, when she's already tears, how grateful she is for his generosity and, in fact, I was expecting something much more sinister from the character as a result.
It's never made clear what the future of the marriage after that night, but it couldn't be could, since she arrives ruined and alone in the second part. There are very few laughs here, as it sets Justine's depression against the existential dread from the impending end of the world. It's deeply sad, but it embraces that sadness with strength and beauty. As indicated in the subtitle of the section, the second part deals with the emotions of Claire as much as those of Justine. We watch her start strong, almost superior, while she struggles to care for her sister, but as the fate of the world becomes more apparent, she starts breaking down herself. The safe box she's fostered for years has crumbled around her and, now, Justine's fatalist attitude becomes a strength, simply from her acceptance of her fate, a fate that she has rolled around in her mind many times.
Together, the two parts represent the finest cinematic representation of depression that I've ever seen. Kirsten Dunst makes clear the deep anguish and terror of depression down to her inability even to lift her leg into a bathtub. Food tastes wrong, colors are off, nothing works. It's an awful place to be and Dunst owns the role. For the first time, I've actually liked the actress in a movie and, ineffective as I normally find her, I fell in love with her here. Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally good as Claire, but her role is far less sympathetic and she's really tough to feel bad for, even when her own world has bottomed out on her. All the performances are excellent, but these two, along with the planet, are by far the main focus of the narrative. Incidentally, watch out for brief parts from Stellan Skarsgård, a real jerk as Justine's boss and Michael's best man, and Udo Kier (Suspiria), who is hilarious as the wedding planner.
The two parts are directed in distinct styles that work together toward a satisfying whole. The first is at night, but it is brightly lit with gold tones that show off the opulence and unwelcoming atmosphere of the castle. There is a feeling of artificiality to it that parallels the artifice of this whole production put on for Justine. She's highly intelligent and empathic; she can see just how fake it all is as she tries vainly to cope. The second part feels almost warm in comparison, though now the scene is bathed in the blues of Melancholia, in quite literal terms. Unlike the wedding scene, much of this part takes place outdoors and, when inside, the focus is much more on the parts of the house we have not yet seen. In the present circumstances, within the beauty of the estate, Justine can finally reach peace, even while her sister falls away.
I walked away deeply impressed with every aspect of Melancholia and, sad though it made me, it is the most powerful artistic expression in the career of Lars von Trier. It's going to take a certain kind of mood for me to sit down for another viewing of it, but when that time comes, I will relish the opportunity to watch it once more.
The Blu-ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment does fine justice to the film, as well. The 2.35:1/1080p image looks stunning throughout, with gorgeous color balance and incredible detail. The opening sequence and both parts of the story, all in different styles, look equally great. The clarity accentuates the artifice of the first part, which seems intentional, shows off the beauty of the visual effects in the second, and makes the opening bit is as sumptuous and warm as you could possibly want. The excellence continues in the sound mix, which is arguably better even than the image. While the lack of an original score is too bad, they made their decision, and their use of the Wagner overture, perfectly suited to the tone of the film, is booming in the speakers. The dialog may be a little on the soft side at times, but a lot of that comes from Dunst and it fits her character. The sound effects are where the money's at, though, with fantastic separation in the channels and effective use o them all. In the film's final moments, I was blown away by the massive sound, marking the first time in ages and ages, not being much for effects movies in general, to consciously regret not seeing a movie in the theater. With all of those speakers turned way up, it must have been an incredible experience. On the disc, though, it's as effective in that regard as virtually any Blu-ray I've seen.
Extras are not as numerous as I would have hoped, but what has been included is of decent quality. No audio commentary, though after the Cannes debacle, I understand his reticence to record his own voice, but we do hear from him in the various featurettes. The five short pieces cover the visual effects, the story, and the science behind it. They're a little too slim, but the various people we hear from are clearly passionate about their work. I wish there were more details on every aspect of Melancholia but that is unfortunately all we get.
Melancholia is a beautiful, emotionally fulfilling film, but there's no question that the movie is a beating which, incidentally, sounds like what it must be like to date Justine. I have a hard time imagining somebody coming out of it feeling good, but does anybody ever feel that great after a Lars von Trier movie? Still, it's as satisfying a cinematic experience as I've had in some time. It may not be some kind of Friday night feel good entertainment, but I completely lost myself in its melancholic charms.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site