Someone forgot to tell me this was a sci-fi film. Or is it? Of course, since I am a lover of sci-fi, this element only enhanced my enjoyment of the film, even if it is meant as a metaphor. And yes, unlike some other von Trier films, Melancholia can actually be enjoyed.
Not to say that Melancholia isn’t relentlessly depressing, as its title would suggest. But the title refers to a planet that has been hiding on the far side of the sun and is now on the move. That makes two independent films in one year dealing with this rather odd subject. If I was an astronomer, I’d be making sure there isn’t anything hiding out there.
Melancholia is divided into two parts, telling two very different stories involving the two sisters, Justine and Claire. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are both extraordinary in playing these two roles, but it is Dunst who steals the film, well-deserving her best actress award at Cannes. All of the acting is outstanding (Kiefer Sutherland is particularly effective in the major supporting role).
Part one of Melancholia is about Justine’s wedding, a wedding that is not only depressing (partly because Justine is clearly suffering from ‘melancholia’) but eerily unsettling. And yet it is also very funny, in a darkly comic way (partly because of the dysfunctionality of Justine’s family). Part two focuses on the planet Melancholia and its effect on the two sisters. This part moves away from comedy toward a haunting beauty that stays with you long after the film.
The impact of melancholia (either as disease or planet) is life-draining. “Life on earth is evil,” says Justine at one point, indicating that there would be no great loss if it was destroyed. Sometimes I wonder whether Lars von Trier, the writer and director of Melancholia, shares that sentiment. Certainly his last film, Antichrist, would support that possibility. Von Trier is one of the most distinctive filmmakers out there and all of his films (that I have seen) are odd and disturbing. This is true of Melancholia as well, but at least this film is accessible (I would not advise any reader to watch Antichrist, thought-provoking though it may be). I think von Trier is a genius whose voice deserves to be heard, but I also think his voice needs to challenged (e.g. by films like The Way, which was playing in the next room and being watched by two of my favourite former college professors – they came out with broad smiles on their faces; I did not).
The score is a major force in Melancholia and it frequently repeats a piece from Wagner’s opera ‘Tristan and Isolde”. It is a good choice and it is used effectively, but the repetition got a little old for me after a while.
Melancholia has some stunningly beautiful cinematography but it is the cinematography which prevents Melancholia from being a great film (IMHO). To be precise, the problem was the prevalence of jerky amateur-style handheld camera work of the kind I very much dislike. While there are a limited number of films which use that style effectively, I have no use for it (as I have said before) and other than contributing to a feeling of disorientation, I did not appreciate its use in Melancholia.
I would have given Melancholia an easy ***+ for being as relentlessly fascinating as it was relentlessly depressing, but the lazy camera work deserves to be punished, so I am knocking it down to ***. My mug is up but I recommend this film only to those who enjoy watching odd independent films (which I do).