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Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Click on the image above for the trailer for Melancholia.

I’m not a Lars von Trier cultist by any stretch of the imagination — his previous work strikes me as empty and pretentious — and I say this only because with Melancholia, easily the best film of his career, he has created one of the the most heartbreaking, elegiac, complex and accomplished films in cinema history — in short, it’s a stop at nothing masterpiece, and instantly joins the pantheon of truly remarkable films, evoking everything from Dreyer to Bresson to Resnais and all the stops in-between.

The plot of the film is no secret; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a deeply depressed young woman whom we meet on her wedding day, afflicted with melancholia, the disease; at the same time, a huge planet, also named Melancholia, is hurtling towards earth at terrific speed, destined to utterly destroy the planet. All of this is revealed in the first five minutes, in a super-slow-motion montage reminiscent of the video gallery pieces of Bill Viola, culminating in the moment that Melancholia collides with Earth, as seen from distant space.

But after this opening, wordless sequence, scored to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film leaves the apocalypse plot aside for a close-up examination of Justine’s disastrous and ruinously expensive wedding, during which Justine bit by bit collapses into a state of almost complete catatonia. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to help her through the day-long ordeal, but to no avail. By the end of the day, Claire’s husband deserts her, she’s fired from her job for telling off her obnoxious boss, and her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) stands up during a toast and tells the entire room that she hates the very idea of marriage, even as the forced festivities continue.

That’s the first half of the film, aptly entitled Justine, but when Claire takes over the eponymous second half of Melancholia, the film deepens into a doleful meditation on mortality, the worthlessness of property and money, the fickle stability of family relationships, and because the end of the film is predestined — we know from the opening moments that everyone in the film will die, as well as every other person on the earth — the tragedy becomes almost unbearably intense, as Justine pulls out of her depression, embraces the inevitability of death, and becomes, against all odds, the most courageous member of the group in the film’s final moments.

More than that I cannot and should not say; this is a film that simply must be experienced, preferably on a large screen for full visual and emotional impact. This is the sort of apocalyptic thriller that only an artist can pull off; it’s absolutely pitch-perfect for its entire two hour and fifteen minute running time, and like the rogue planet that dominates Melancholia from first frame to last, the film inexorably gathers velocity and resonance as it hurtles towards its horrific and yet transcendant climax. The entire cast is superb — Dunst gives the performance of her career in the film — and John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and all the rest of the ensemble are equally brilliant.

I spend so much of my time watching junk, which is all the Hollywood makes now, so when something as good as this, or Margin Call, comes along, I want to celebrate. It’s as Ingmar Bergman said near the end of his life; you see so many bad movies, that after a while, you don’t expect anything more. Then something like this comes along. Melancholia is an astonishing, absolutely remarkable film that succeeds on every level — as human drama, as science fiction fantasy, as social parable, as purely visual filmmaking. See it at once.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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