In Melancholia, Lars von Trier gives us a film that is simultaneously enigmatic yet concrete, multilayered yet with a simple-enough central story, immediately accessible yet with endless elements that beg for deeper consideration. By juxtaposing two ends of a far flung continuum of human travails — one person’s depression and a threat to the earth’s existence — the film explores our reactions to and interactions with the dark sides of life.
Justine and Michael have just been married. Their late arrival to an exquisite reception party sets off a string of dysfunctional family interactions. This, in turn, sets off Justine’s depressive melancholia and a rabbit-hole descent into deeper dysfunction. At the same time as all of this, a newly discovered rogue planet, Melancholia, is heading toward earth, causing great fear that it may be the end of the world. Running time: 136 min.
Hearing that Melancholia involves end-of-the-world fears likely brings to mind ideas of what the film is like. Those ideas would be wrong. It is instead an intimate exploration of how two sisters differ in how they face life’s darkness. What do we expect from life? Are we able to look straight into the darkness, or do we turn away, whistling? If we look, are we drawn into despair? In what ways do we conceal the darkness from ourselves and others? In what ways do we make a grand bargain with ourselves and others to be happy in the face of darkness? How does our ability to face darkness affect us when we encounter life’s inevitable dance with it? Questions like these are the subtext underlying (at small risk of exaggeration) nearly every sequence of scene and dialog in Melancholia.
That the film works at a (perplexing) surface level, even while being so thoroughly infused with an exploration of our dealings with darkness, is a major testament to von Trier’s filmcraft. His restraint in eschewing any sensationalist play on the planet’s approach is quite admirable. Melancholia is clearly for viewers that can actively engage with a film versus those who must be carried by onscreen excitement. The opening montage sets an enigmatic tone and, throughout the film, what’s left out and what doesn’t happen contribute to a mythic-epic quality that reinforces the enigma, as does a light-toned classical soundtrack. If there’s a notable weakness, it would be that some hand-held shots may be too, well, hand-held.
Melancholia is most definitely worth the time, but don’t go when you’re tired and can’t stay fully and actively engaged. And definitely don’t go when you’re just out for a fun Friday night, unless you’re the sort of moviegoer for whom a film’s excellence is a big part of the fun.
The film has a distant image of full-length female nudity, a closeup topless view, a side/rear image of a woman getting into bath, and a distant, brief, fully clothed sexual encounter. Drinking is frequent; language is there and sometimes strong, but not pervasive.
- Director: Lars von Trier
- Screenplay: Lars von Trier
- Leads: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård
- Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro
- Musical arrangements: Kristian Eidnes Andersen
- Info on IMDb
- Reviews on Rottentomatoes (78%)
- Reviews on Metacritic (81 of 100)
- Review by Los Angeles Times
- Review by Paste Magazine
- Review on Christianity Today Movies (2.5 of 4)
- Review on Film School Rejects (grade: A-)
- Review on Crosswalk
- Buy Melancholia DVD on Amazon.com
- Go to the Netflix page
- Go to the Blockbuster page
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