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Denmark 2011
Directed by
Lars von Trier
136 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars


Synopsis: On what should be the happiest night of her life, new bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is beset by melancholy. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) have thrown a lavish party, but it is marred by antagonism between the girls’ parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt). Add to this Justine’s inability to relate to her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) or to be a real part of the celebration. After a debacle of a wedding things get more strained when suddenly a new planet, Melancholia, emerges from behind the sun and appears to be on a possible collision course with Earth.

Lars von Trier loves to give us controversial films and here he is with one that has split critics down the middle. Even I was split down my own middle! As I watched the slow, stylised opening scenes (which are almost a mini-reveal of some apocalyptic events later in the film), the phrase “what a wank” crossed my mind. First we are treated to a long shot of Dunst’s face, set in a mega-depressed expression; then come shots in gruelling slo-mo of Claire traipsing knee-deep through a sodden golf green, kid in arms; of a black horse buckling to its knees; of the bride standing Christlike, with fingers giving off electric currents; and, most stunning of all, two planets colliding with a thunderous rumble.  Suddenly, before one can begin to process any of these confronting and perplexing scenes, a “real” plot begins, with a stretch limo, containing Justine and Michael, hopelessly lost, trying to do a U-turn on a narrow road on their way to the brother in laws’ country mansion for their wedding reception.

Part one of the film, entitled Justine, tracks the reception in excruciatingly uncomfortable detail. All is awry, from the ascerbic comments of Justine’s mother through to Justine disappearing to take a bath mid-reception. I was reminded of Festen, a 1998 Dogme film about family dysfunctionality coming to a head at a birthday celebration, although von Trier pushes the discomfort even further here. Part 2 of the film, entitled Claire deals with Justine’s ongoing post-wedding depression and Claire’s agitation at the looming approach of the errant planet.

The two sisters represent opposite world views. Claire, having a husband and little son she loves, is full of attachment for life, full of hope for the future and would have much to lose by the planetary collision. For Justine however, dragged down by constant melancholy, it is the literal realization of her nihilistic worldview.
Some viewers might interpret the pervading sense of doom as a representation of what depressives go through all their lives. Von Trier himself suffered a major bout of depression, so no doubt there is a personal element to the film. But it is also one of a recent spate of films like Tree Of Life and Another Earth, which are trying to deal with things that are beyond our comprehension.

Despite my initial fears and although decidedly out of the ordinary, Melancholia with its intellectual challenges, excellent acting (Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes this year for her performance) and its exquisite cinematography, all supported by lashings of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, left me intrigued.





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