Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are making their way to the lavish home of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and rich, snobbish brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) for their wedding reception. All the family is waiting, including Justine and Claire's mother and father (Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt) and Justine's advertising agency boss (and Michael's father) Jack (Stellan Skarsgård). But family tensions start to mount and relationships disintegrate. Meanwhile, the gigantic blue planet of Melancholia is directly heading towards Earth. Is this the end of the world?
Review by Louise Keller:
From its operatic beginning through its intriguing and bewildering middle section and dramatic conclusion, Lars von Trier continues to challenge and confound his audiences. Occasionally gripping, at times fascinating and often just plain dull, this terminally long and episodic drama with sci-fi overtones is a curious work that may be considered brilliant by some; pretentious by others. What is indisputable is Kirsten Dunst's striking performance as the melancholy bride, which won her the best actress award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Following the graphically shocking Antichrist, Melancholia by contrast is tranquil. Outwardly, at least. The end of the world is coming and there's an acceptance about the inevitability of it all. But does it matter? Is there any point to anything? Von Trier's planet of destruction is called Melancholia, whose name echoes the mental state of the film's leading character.
It's a high concept film with shock value and a dense complacency that wafts over us. The shocks include outdoor sex, nudity by a bubbling stream and a beautiful bride with violent mood swings. Shot in Sweden, the film looks stunning, set in the grounds of a magnificent stone mansion, perched on the water's edge and surrounded by a verdant 18-hole golf course. This gorgeous setting is a sharp contrast to the unhappiness and bleakness that characterises the main players.
Divided into a prologue and two long halves, the first 10 minutes or so is a splendid operatic montage of imagery, stills and slo-mo scenes set to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. The first unforgettable image is a lingering close up of Dunst, whose eyes have the look of death and desperation. Creatures fall from the sky above manicured lawns and snowy landscapes. Muddy footprints are left on a pristine golfing green, a black stallion falls to the ground in slow motion. A bride, a young boy and woman walk by moonlight; Dunst clutches a bouquet of lily of the valley as she reclines expressionless in a crystal stream. As she holds her fingers up to the sky, strands of electricity spike upwards. These are arguably the film's most striking moments, all of which occur as the blue planet of Melancholia approaches the Earth.
The subsequent two sections, each lasting about an hour, are about the two women of the film, played by Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are oddly mismatched as sisters. Not only do they bear no physical resemblance, Gainsbourg's clipped English accent grates against Dunst's Hollywood twang. Dunst is Justine, the subject of the first section, who, dressed in a stunning strapless wedding gown is in a white stretch limo with her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, son of Stellan) on their way to their expensive wedding reception at the home of her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). While she might look the epitome of the radiant bride, our perceptions change dramatically over the next hour as her behaviour becomes irrational with incomprehensible mood swings. Surrounded by champagne and flowers, one minute she is happily kissing Michael, the next she becomes detached, withdrawn with worse to come, much to everyone's consternation.
The dysfunctional family relationships quickly show their cracks - with Charlotte Rampling as the sour, outspoken mother of the bride, John Hurt memorable as the optimistic father who swipes silver spoons and Stellan Skarsgård strong as Justine's boss and father of the groom. Kiefer Sutherland is effective as the pretentious, rich host, who is obsessed about money. I enjoyed parts of this section with its tensions and surprises, but the second section (titled Claire) in which Justine and Claire both succumb to doubts and depression is tediously dull. Gainsbourg whines non stop and is terribly irritating. These are not people with whom it is a pleasure to spend our time. Justine tells Claire 'I know things' as the servant fails to arrive, the phone doesn't work and they wonder aloud whether or not the planet will collide with Earth. Do we care? Sadly no. Visually, there are some high points, though.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The end of the world is about the biggest subject for cinema, as filmmakers in Hollywood know, but it takes a European in Lars von Trier to make a small film from such a big subject. This in spite of the fact that unlike Hollywood filmmakers, von Trier goes through with it and destroys Earth. Spoiler? Hardly; that's the whole point of the film. So when I say a small film, I mean a film which focuses entirely on a small group of people at a wedding, and the cat among the pigeons bride (Kristin Dunst).
The film opens with the portent of things to come, planets aligning to loud and big Wagner. This is the music you have when you want to fill cinematic emptiness with mysterious power.
Told as two chapters, the first is Justine, the second her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with the first dedicated to the long and messy wedding at a spectacular waterside mansion set in lovely grounds and an 18 hole golf course. But for a once used internet connection - when Claire tries to find out if the planet Melancholia is going to crash into Earth - the characters are cut off from the world. We see no news reports of the impending catastrophe as we might have expected, nor any radio news flash, or even a newspaper headline. It's as if we were cocooned in a cone of silence ...
Family ruptures punctuate the wedding, with bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling) and dotty dad (John Hurt) among the guests being entertained at great expense by John (Kiefer Sutherland), Claire's wealthy husband. Amusing support characters, as in any self-respecting European film, are embellishment, like the house manager played by the charismatic Jesper Christensen (recently seen as the terrifying ex-Nazi doctor in The Debt); and the waiter with a strange affliction played by Udo Keir.
Many of the shots, especially in the opening sequences, could have come from a von Trier music video made for Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. But then he said it himself: in the early 90s during one of the Cannes Festivals where he was a guest, he told me in our interview that he saw himself as "a masturbator of the silver screen". Well, this self-confessed cinematic wanker at least has the guts to be honest about his work. He is evidently quite insecure about this his latest film, not sure whether he's made some gargoyle-like version of German romanticism or a chick flick.
Given that the film plays like languid, corrupted romanticism, maybe he's made both. But having chosen a talented cast, he gets high marks for his usual confrontational style, by way of a slot at the Cannes Competition. It is, above all, unique, which deserves to be applauded (without the Wagnerian fanfare, please).
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CAST: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard, Brady Cobert, Udo Kier
PRODUCER: Meta Louise Foldager, Louise Vesth
DIRECTOR: Lars von Trier
SCRIPT: Lars von Trier
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Manuel Alberto Claro
EDITOR: Molly M. Stensgaard
MUSIC: Not credited
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jette Lehman
RUNNING TIME: 136 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 15, 2011