Cannes 2011: MELANCHOLIA Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
Congratulations to everyone who has ever accused director Lars Von Trier of self absorption and hollow pretentiousness. You win this round. Von Trier's Melancholia is a glossy but hollow exercise with shockingly little to say and - seemingly - surprisingly little effort put in to saying it well. Poor performances and shoddy dialogue are just the most obvious problems with this one, a film that handily wrests the 'Worst Film Of Career' title away from The Boss Of It All and, in the process, takes its place as the first Von Trier film that I would classify as just plain bad. Melancholia is a lot like a lottery scratch card, promising a lot under it's shiny surface but ultimately nothing more than a wafer thin disappointment.

Kirsten Dunst is Justine, a beautiful young woman from a privileged family who we meet on her wedding day. She's glowing despite running late for her own reception, laughing with her new husband - played by Alexander Skarsgard - as their limo tries and fails to navigate the treacherous road to the party hosted in the sprawling country manor of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It does not go well.

You see, Justine clearly suffers from an extreme case of clinical depression - or she may be bipolar, I'm no doctor - and her mood shifts dramatically as soon as they arrive on the scene. Her astoundingly bitchy mother and spaced out father - an entertaining John Hurt, one of the film's few bright spots - sniping at each other in public certainly doesn't help but whether that or something else is the trigger for her episode, Justine is soon sullen and withdrawn in the extreme, her behavior becoming increasingly more erratic until it has devastating consequences on both her fledgling marriage and career.

It is the morning after the disastrous wedding reception that Justine makes a significant observation: A star has disappeared from the sky. Turns out that it's still there, you just can't see it because a previously unspotted planet, one that wanders through the universe without an orbit of its own, is now moving in on what is potentially a collision course with earth.

Von Trier divides the film into two even parts. The first half - running slightly over an hour - plays as a straight family drama. It is the story of Justine and her wedding or, more accurately, Justine and her depression. It is a solid hour of the obscenely wealthy and wildly neurotic behaving badly to one another at the wedding from hell. Part two comes from Claire's perspective and is the story of the Claire, Justine, and Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) sitting in the house and coping with Justine's depression and Claire's growing fears of an imminent collision with the inbound planet, now christened Melancholia.

The problems with the film are many. Most immediately comes the realization that every single one of these characters are horrible people, completely unworthy of any concern. They're wretched and they give the audience nobody at all to empathize with. Compounding that is a script that puts incredibly stilted and unnatural dialogue in their mouths from opening frame to closing. Nobody speaks the way these people do, not ever. And while Von Trier has used highly stylized dialogue in the past to make a point - Dogville being an obvious example - this does not appear to have any purpose behind it, the writing is simply poor. Making this even worse is the peculiar casting - Gainsbourg and Dunst as sisters? Speaking in completely different accents? Really? - many of whom are simply not up to the tasks given them. John Hurt and Udo Kier both stand out in a good way, injecting a bit of energy into things, but neither is in the film for very long while lead player Kirsten Dunst is entirely flat and lifeless. She is bland and boring in the extreme. Making this worse again is that the film never leaves the house and its grounds once it arrives there and none of the characters are ever given anything to do. At all. This is an entirely, one hundred percent passive picture in which people spend over two hours either being awful to each other or sitting around waiting for the inevitable. There is zero narrative drive. There is zero dramatic tension. There are zero character arcs. Von Trier tells you in minute one that the planet is going to be destroyed, then he simply makes you wait around for it to happen.

That the film is intended as an allegory for the experience of clinical depression is obvious. The imagery is so blatant that it cannot possibly be missed. We spend an hour watching depression destroy Justine's marriage, then we spend another hour watching Melancholia destroy our planet and everything on it. You can't miss what Von Trier is saying here. The issue is that he could have said it just as well in ten minutes and, given that he's been outspoken about his lifelong bouts of depression for years now, I would expect that one of the world's leading storytellers could summon up more to say on the topic than what you could get out of a sulking preteen just as easily.

Do not be misled by the film's trailer. Those gorgeous images? All but one are contained in a brief prologue that fills the film's opening minutes. After that it's nothing but people sitting around the house saying not much of anything about anything and doing so in a very tedious, unnatural fashion. Von Trier is capable of so very much better than this.


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