At first, it seems like a typical wedding day as Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael ('True Blood's' Alexander Skarsgård) lark about trying to maneuver their stretch limo around a hairpin curve. But when they arrive at the castle where her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, "Antichrist") and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) live, fretting over their lateness for their own reception party, things begin to take a downward turn. Justine, it seems, suffers from overwhelming bouts of depression and that red star in the sky is really the planet that is heading straight for Earth, "Melancholia."
Writer/director Lars von Trier ("Breaking the Waves") claimed depression as the instigation of his last film, "Antichrist," and he seems not to have gotten over it with his latest. But although the film is as visually arresting, perhaps more so than his last, it's nowhere near as thought provoking. "Melancholia" is like looking through an art book, something which Justine does to signal her state of mind (her sister's estate has a library with shelves rigged to prop books open), but once it's made its point (a depressive might embrace the end of the world where a healthy person probably wouldn't), all that's left are pretty pictures set to orchestral music. Von Trier's hugely reported Cannes press conference, where he started rambling about Hitler, was probably far more entertaining.
The film opens with stunning imagery, including the Earth smashing into the larger planet of Melancholia and birds falling from the sky. We see who turns out to be Claire twirling her young son around at the far end of a lawn sweeping down to the sea, a sundial in the foreground. In gorgeous, deep focus slo-mo, Justine follows the little boy through the woods as the overture to 'Tristan and Isolde' swells on the soundtrack. Electric energy flies from her fingertips.
But then von Trier cuts to the more conventional action. He's divided his film into two sections. The first, titled 'Justine,' is all about the doomed wedding party and is very reminiscent of fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration." After being chided for being late, Justine's also made to consider the expense her brother-in-law has gone to (John doesn't like to be parted from his money). Justine describes her mental state as 'like trudging through gray yarn.' Her and Claire's mom Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) makes a toast all about her disbelief in the institution of marriage while their father, Dexter (John Hurt), surrounds himself with two young girls both named Betty. Michael tries to engage his new bride with a gift of land which includes an apple orchard, but after claiming she will never be parted from the photograph, she promptly leaves it behind. The wedding planner (a hilarious Udo Kier, "Mother of Tears") is so upset with the bride's behavior that he refuses to look at her. Justine's boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård, "Thor"), announces her promotion from copy writer to art director, so she screws her replacement, his befuddled nephew Tim (Brady Corbet, 2007's "Funny Games"), on John's golf course and later tells Jack to take a hike. Michael, left alone in his honeymoon suite, decides this just ain't gonna work.
The second half, 'Claire,' is about the family preparing for the encroaching Melancholia, which John assures his wife will not hit Earth. John's set up a telescope and is proud when his son 'invents' a tool for determining Melancholia's approach - a stick to hold against one's chest with a round wire with which to view it through and determine whether it is approaching or retreating. Justine arrives in a cab, which John regrets having to pay, seemingly incapable of anything, then begins to come to life as Melancholia gets larger in the sky. John's actions don't match his words, the little stone bridge one must cross to get to town suddenly doesn't allow either horse or golf cart over it and Claire wonders why Little Father (Jesper Christensen, "The Debt"), their faithful butler, hasn't shown up today. Claire spies Justine lying on a stream bank, a beautiful nude bathing in the light cast by heavenly bodies. Justine invents a magical cave for her nephew to take shelter in, one of the few actions that have motivational sense.
Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her portrayal of Justine and she relates depression well, but a lot of the things von Trier has her do are baffling. Gainsbourg is actually more interesting in her normality, a level-headed woman and mother, a natural care giver. And yet, the film bogs down in Claire's section, the eccentric wedding guest circus having left town. Perversely, the director cast Skarsgård father and son as unrelated characters.
2011 finds many filmmakers contemplating the beginning and the end in the cosmos, but while von Trier has created an exquisite looking and sounding work, it fails to engage emotionally. Whoever would have thought Von Trier could become a little boring? The filmmaker was recently questioned by police about possibly breaking a French law about justification of war crimes because of his Cannes remarks and subsequently announced he would no longer do interviews or speak in public. How ironic that the movie in which he has the least to say has silenced him.
Robin's review coming soon.
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