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Melancholia - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A
Special Effects: A-

Now this is not your run-of-the-mill "end of the world" movie. Look no further than the fact that -- and this is really not a spoiler -- the world really does end in it. As one character states, there is no place to hide. Indeed not, when the entire planet is being obliterated by another planet many times its size.

Melancholia has something in common with Terrence Malick's far more polarizing The Tree of Life. It frequently alternates between the micro and the macro: intimate scenes of a wedding reception given at a grand estate give way to wide shots of stars and planets in space. Here, though, the celestial visions are largely concentrated at the beginning and end of the film. We get to see the large planet, itself called Melancholia, crash into the Earth at the end of a lengthy, stunningly beautiful introductory vignette prior to the title card. We see the characters in various dreamlike shots, and we see what's at stake. Which is everything, pretty much.

Lars von Trier is not usually one for such incredibly polished production values. One of the things that made me hate sitting through Dogville (2003) was his decision to stage the entire, three-hour film on an almost blank stage floor with no more than just a few props. In spite of it being technically a musical (albeit arguably the most depressing one in history), Dancer in the Dark (2000) was still shot with grainy, hand-held footage. Not so with Melancholia: the wedding reception is appropriately shot in that hand-held style, but much of the rest of the film is packed with frames that are works of art unto themselves. The script may be slightly obtuse -- hardly a surprise for Lars von Trier -- but at least it's amazing to look at.

There's a curious narrative structure. That title card comes up, then we see "Part One" is about Justine. Kirsten Dunst, here at her best, is Justine, and she is on her way to her ridiculously lavish wedding reception on the grand estate owned by her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). We never find out exactly how many hours earlier she got married to her husband (Alexander Skarsgård), only that they are apparently two hours late to the reception. And then the reception runs over-long for a multitude of reasons, pissing off a great many people, including the wedding planner, who eventually refuses to look at the bride.

This goes on for some time, perhaps half the movie, and with not a single mention of Melancholia. Are any of them yet aware of the planet headed toward Earth? I can only assume they don't. If they did, they might be distracted from bring what deeply unhappy people they are, which seems to be what we're supposed to glean from these scenes. Justine has issues, and one can only assume they are at least partly stemmed from her estranged parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, making the most of their comparatively small parts).

So much time went by without any mention of Melancholia, I began to wonder if the trailers were some kind of psych-out, and the "end of the world" doesn't actually happen. Maybe it's just a metaphor for these people's lives?

Nope! "Part Two" focuses on Claire, Justine's sister, and it's not long at all after that's made clear that Claire says to her husband, "I'm worried about that stupid planet." Oh, so this is really happening. Is this before or after the wedding reception? Von Trier has a tendency to be a little cagey about these things. But, with expert timing, these things become clear soon enough.

And these are the things that set Melancholia apart: it starts off as an intimate family drama, and then, without ever taking the focus off these characters, it slowly works its way into something both grand in scale and rather unsettling. I could never quite put my finger on why, but by the last quarter or so of it, the movie started creeping me out.

The characters don't necessarily do the things you might expect under such circumstances. In the end, von Trier doesn't bother with so much as Justine's parents, let alone the world at large -- we're left with no more than Justine, Claire, Jack, and Clair and Jack's little boy. And von Trier presents it in such a way that no more is needed. It's the end of the world as seen from a filthy rich guy's sprawling estate, all extended family and friends disregarded. They never reappear after the wedding reception ends -- including the husband. Does it matter?

I did wonder about how sound the science was. Could something like this ever possibly happen? I've never heard of entire planets hurtling through the universe like a comet. But then we come back to the same question: Does it matter? When the world ends, how it was possible will no longer be relevant to anyone.

So why make a movie like this at all? Hell if I know. It's interesting to see how these three adults each deal with their knowledge of the inevitable in their own way. It certainly sticks with you. I spent some time unable to decide what to make of this movie. I still largely feel that way even now. And yet, somehow that's what keeps me coming back to a greater appreciation for it. Here, Lars von Trier still keeps his patented refusal to be straightforward about a lot of things, but for once he isn't infuriating about it. And he throws in some beautiful imagery for good measure.

Nothing left to do but wait for the inevitable cataclysm in MELANCHOLIA.

Overall: A-
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