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Reviews

Melancholia

Jeremy Clarke

Lars von Trier
Certificate 15, 130 mins
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Melancholia.jpg

There have been end of the world movies before, but this one, by the Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier, breaks the mould. It comes in three parts: a prelude of apocalyptic imagery including a view of the planet Melancholia crashing into and obliterating the earth, followed by two lengthy sections concerning two sisters. The first section has the newly-wed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) making a mess of her lavishly planned, obscenely expensive wedding party at the house of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire's wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). The second has Claire, John their pre-teen son Leo (Cameron Spurr) and Justine awaiting what may turn out to be either the close passing by of Melancholia to the earth or the fatal collision of the larger planet with the smaller. Depending on whether the prelude's pictured events are actually going to happen or merely an imagined worst case scenario. A provocative game for a director to play with an audience.

The prelude - slo-mo state of the art images underscored by classical music not unlike the opening to von Trier's earlier Antichrist - has falling birds, static electricity, Justine in a wedding dress ensnared by forest branches and Claire carrying Leo through scenes of apocalyptic mayhem. None of which prepares one for the section about Justine, which starts off with the happy couple chauffeured in a stretch limo having difficulties negotiating impossible bends on a driveway. At the house, there follows a parade of numerous familial and wedding guest characters - the sisters' anti-marriage mum (Charlotte Rampling) and separated reprobate father (John Hurt), her ruthless ad agency boss and his hapless minion, the latter charged to extract a much needed copy headline from the bride, and many more. There are intrigues, with Justine seemingly intent on sabotaging her financially extravagant 'special day' at every turn.

In contrast to this section's ensemble, the last section is restricted to Claire's husband, son and sister alone on the lavish estate. As apocalypse becomes increasingly probable, the dominant husband's credibility drains away and Claire moves from confidence to crisis. Here it's the previously unstable Justine (addressed by young Leo as 'my Aunt Steelbreaker') who takes command, suggesting a way that the two sisters and the young boy can face the approaching end.   

The special effects, when von Trier opts for them are peerless; yet to describe this as a special effects movie would be both to miss the point. Psychological drama is perhaps closer to it. Surprisingly for such a deep film with apocalyptic subject matter, any religious element is lacking. Instead, there is the sense that in a world drained of meaning and virtue, and full of pain and empty rituals, like Justine's wedding, the end of all life comes as something of a relief. Justine speaks for the film itself when she says, 'Life is evil'.

Veering effortlessly between offensive, unsettling and gripping, Melancholia is an extraordinary cinematic tour de force which I'm sure will handsomely repay multiple viewings. Beneath its well-crafted veneer lie deep questions and observations about the mystery of being human. It could well turn out to be my film of the year. 

Jeremy Clarke