Movie Review: “Melancholia”

Written by Brent Holmes October 11, 2011

Review by Brent Holmes

Controversial director Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is a visual masterpiece. Watching it on off a laptop from a downloaded bit torrent is a galactic sin. Much like his previous work, Antichrist, Trier’s artistry is focused on the twisting of nature. His recent film clashes the personal lives of his characters against planetary forces. In Melancholia, a planetary collision threatening to destroy Earth parallels two sisters’ having their worlds turned upside down by fear and depression.
This is a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen. The visuals are comparable to that of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, although with a more specific focus than Malick’s equally incredible film. Trier is focused heavily on duality and this theme is displayed in the film’s visual spectacles, characters, and narrative.

Within the first five minutes, the film presents an enterlude accompanied by a powerful soundtrack that visually displaying the themes and laying out the course of the plot. Slow motion destruction surrounds Justine (Kristen Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) brilliantly accentuated by their almost frozen reactions to it. This introduction is further used to paint the poetic-like lines of dialogue in the later film.

Melancholia is divided into two starkly different parts focusing on Justine in the first and Claire in the second. Public and private lives, dependency and self-sufficiency, fear and depression are brilliantly contrasted between the two parts. The first act follows Justine and her fiancee Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) relationship crumble during a wedding party as Justine descends into depression. The second act sees Justine’s sister Claire struggle with inability to accept the titular planet’s collision with Earth.

The film brings out great performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg who portray the contrasting apathy and anxiety of their characters, but also incredibly strong performances from Alexander and Stellan Skarsgård and Kiefer Sutherland. Alexander Skarsgård handles Michael’s vulnerability and nervousness exceptionally well with his laughs and movements communicating the dual nature of wanting to be confident in public. Sutherland gives a good show as Claire’s husband John, and as one of the few secondary characters to appear in both parts gives two distinct but smooth presentations of his role.

However, Dunst and Gainsbourg remain the focus. The two sisters find themselves falling into the other’s gravity. Justine’s depression makes her dependent on her sister for support when she becomes unable to move, feed, or bathe herself. Claire’s increasing fear created by the coming apocalypse likewise renders her unable to care for herself or her son, Leo (Cameron Spurr). While Claire shines under the spotlight, handling the crowd of wedding guests; Justine shines privately under the blue light of Melancholia.

In a way, Trier has completely subverted the focus of the typical disaster film and perfected it. The spectacle is subordinate its visual value to the film as a whole. By placing the emphasis on people and character development rather than destruction and using the disaster as an extension of his character’s personalities Melancholia explores the end of the world in a truly unforgettable and original way.

My Rating: 9.5 of 10

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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