Scene on Film: ‘Melancholia’

January 4, 2012
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By Joan Ellis

The tendency to dismiss Melancholia is great; the question of whether it’s possible or wise to dismiss anything directed by Lars von Trier is another question altogether. This is, after all, the man who directed three women to Best Actress awards at Cannes (Bjork for Dancer in the Dark, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, and Kirsten Dunst for this movie).  He was one founder of the Danish Dogma 95 movement where members agreed to use only hand held cameras and to shoot only on location. He was the prolific provocateur driven from Cannes last June for saying that he understood Hitler. Anyone who saw his Breaking the Waves in 1996 is likely to be haunted by it still.

Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Alexander Skarsgård in "Melancholia."

The best way to describe this disjointed film is to remind you that von Trier is at all times indulging his skills as writer, director, actor, and producer. But he needs an editor. His imagery here, as always, is beautiful. Shooting in Sweden on location in a castle surrounded by a rolling golf course, barns, and woods, he has multiple landscapes at his disposal. I digress.

The film opens with dramatic scenes of a planet named Melancholia that may or may not be about to collide with Earth. Below, a wedding has taken place between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skaarsgard). They are on their way to the reception given for them by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). By the time they get there, we are asking ourselves whether the bride’s mood swings are due to the potential cosmic catastrophe or to an anxiety disorder. We realize, as time passes all too slowly, that while the guests do know of their impending doom, this dysfunctional wedding reception will continue in spite of the approaching planet.

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Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, and Kiefer Sutherland add to the excellent cast.  But the odd dialogue makes little sense. There is absolutely no connection to the outside world, no apparent awareness of what’s coming, and yet everyone seems unhinged. The movie is interminably long.  It is studded with memorable sights – a horse dying, a dead man being buried in straw, the intriguing sight of a young boy’s invention to gauge the direction of the planet. Will it pass? His father says, of course it will and calls it a “fly by.” Von Trier photographs Dunst lovingly but disjointedly – one minute she’s crying at the party, the next lying naked in the woods – no connection, no explanation. This director doesn’t bother with transitions.

The soundtrack is blessedly silent save for periodic bursts of ill-advised Wagnerian power used to emphasize the importance of a moment. “I am the best film director in the world,” this director has said. After two hours of failing to pull us into his film, I can’t agree, but his closing shots of final doom are so mesmerizing that I do accept another of his quotes, “A film should be like a rock in the shoe.”

Rated R
Running time: 2:16

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