29 September 2011

Review: Melancholia

Melancholia (2011)

Reviewer: Harry Davenport
Rated: 15 (UK)
Release Date: 30th September 2011 (UK)
Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg , Kiefer Sutherland

Melancholia is the tremendous new film by Lars Von Trier. It is beautifully made and some of the performances are simply marvellous. It is a shame that Trier’s recent jokes involving Nazis took so much attention away from one of his best works.

Melancholia is both a melodrama and an apocalyptic disaster film. It tells the story of two sisters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Dunst plays a depressive and the first half of the story centres on her, showing her wedding, which slowly becomes more and more uncomfortable. Later we follow Gainsbourg, who is a controlling mother and wife who has morbid fears about a planet which is approaching Earth. The family drama and wedding are better than in most melodramas and the disaster element of the film is breathtaking. Roland Emmerich has never destroyed the world in such a beautiful, poignant way. During the opening images we see that the planet will collide with Earth, but just as in some Hollywood films where we know the hero will make it out alive, it doesn’t harm the experience. There is simply a sense of melancholy because the eventual outcome is known. Thus the audience is transformed into pessimists much like Dunst.

The characters are filthily rich and successful but Von Trier does the remarkable job of making us still care for them, showing how money really doesn’t improve one’s life or one’s eventual outcome. Like so many of Von Trier’s films, this work clearly deals with issues he is facing, in this instance, depression. Melancholia demonstrates how depressives can handle very bad news, such as the apocalypse, better than well-balanced people.

Dunst and Gainsbourg give their best performances yet. Dunst is marvellous as the difficult depressed sister. The actress has herself suffered from depression and has been able to channel it into this outstanding performance. She captures at one and the same time the excitement and childishness of the character and the debilitating nature of her depression (On a very childish note, it is also pleasant to see her naked, something many of us have been waiting for since her shirt got a little wet in the first Spiderman). Dunst won the Best Actress Award at Canne but for me Gainsbourg steals the show, albeit only just. Her portrayal of a slightly controlling but loving sister and mother is mesmerising. She has so much to loose if the planet known as Melancholy (tacky but it somehow works) hits Earth. Her desperation and fear; her weakness and her strengths, are all shown and she is simply stunning. If she is seen as a supporting actress this is a crime, for these sisters are equal in terms of impact. Both actresses should be up for best actress nods, their work here is flawless.

The rest of the cast are fine too. The wedding that takes up the first half includes John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, father and son Stellan Skarsgård, and Alexander Skarsgård, and Udo Kier as an overly dramatic wedding planner, overtaking Martin Short from Father of the Bride as movies’ most memorable wedding organiser. They all give good performances, but don’t show us anything new. Kiefer Sutherland plays Gainsbourg’s husband and, whispering a lot of his lines with his raspy Jack Bauer voice, is a tad lightweight next to the stand-out performances the leading ladies give. One scene in which he confronts Dunst about how she is ruining the expensive wedding he paid for is exceptionally written but he just doesn’t quite pull it off.

The film has two distinct camera styles. One is beautiful and well prepared, leading to some mesmerising images. The other is shaky cam, which is meant to give the film a sense of realism. I understand why Von Trier has gone for the vérité look – in order to juxtapose the ordinary human events of the family with the operatic doom approaching – but the film would have worked better if all the shots were still. When given the opportunity to show off, Manuel Alberto Claro does wonders with the camera; the opening has a series of images that are of such beauty that you begin to care and feel excited before a word of dialogue is spoken. The images are of things to come later in the film, and then some of them don’t appear and some are different, which is a great device which keeps you on your toes. They are moving paintings, some which we can recognise. Kirsten Dunst floating down a stream which is used in the posters, is an interpretation of the pre Raphilite painting Ophelia.

Aside from looking wonderful, the film sounds terrific. The sound of the planet is magnificent. It is a cinema experience just to hear it. The film’s soundtrack consists mainly of Wagner’s overture for Tristan and Isolde. The music suits Melancholia perfectly and just as with Death In Venice, which uses Mahler’s 5th endlessly but does not overstay its welcome.

Melancholia is a beautiful looking, and terrific sounding film, with a great director, script and actors. For my money it is the most powerful film made this year so far. Not perfect but truly moving.

Movie Rating: 4.5/5

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