The Review: Ever wondered what you’d do if the world ended? I’m sure there’s supposed to be a siren or a maroon or something, although I will confess to not being 100% sure, and that might be for lifeboats rather than the coming of the apocalypse. Of course, a lot would depend on how much warning you would have: in Armageddon, they could have had eighteen days, but Deep Impact saw the giant rock coming months away. Possibly, of course, the more warning you had, the more likely it would be to leave you feeling a bit down in the dumps. Hence the Melancholia of the title has a dual meaning- Lars von Trier’s latest, and possibly most epic, work to date is actually as much about depression as it is about the end of the world.
The first image we see on screen is Kirsten Dunst, framed by images of death and the destructive power of nature, in a visually stunning silent opening that seems to suggest that the end is nigh, but merely serves as a prelude to the main events of the film, which are divided into two parts. The first focuses on Dunst’s Justine, who has arrived at her wedding reception but seems strangely distracted and listless, keen to avoid interaction of pretty much any kind, even with her unusual family; her doddery dad John Hurt, her disaffected mum Charlotte Rampling, and her increasingly frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire is the focus of the second part, as she and husband Kiefer Sutherland take in the now almost catatonic Justine and attempt to coax her out of whatever has gripped her.
It’s definitely a film of two halves, but also undoubtedly the decision to put the cataclysmic event right up front helps to make the whole film stronger as a result. Even through the first half, which is the most conventional section of the film (if there can be such a think in a von Trier work), there’s a pervading sense of doom, and the eclectic casting helps to keep the audience unsettled even though events move at a snail’s pace at times. The performances feel at first as if they’ve all come from different films, von Trier not telling them in advance what kind of movie they were making, but as events unfold the unusual casting starts to make sense, and the odd little details scattered around, such as the unusually large number of telescopes, serve to slowly but surely draw you into the world that von Trier has created. The first half is noisy and cluttered, reflecting the normal comings and goings of a wedding reception, even if most of the guests are slightly dysfunctional, but it only serves to heighten the tension for the second half, where everything becomes more intimate, and a sense of inevitability sets in.
It’s also where the three best performances reveal themselves, Dunst, Gainsbourg and Sutherland doing good work in the first half but excelling in the latter part, and Dunst’s best actress at Cannes, slightly overshadowed by the outpourings of her director, may not be the only awards attention she gets this year. It’s the kind of awards performance often described as brave, but Dunst does get to run through a full range and it’s one of her most mature performances to date. But it’s not just the acting; from the use of Wagner in the score, to the artistic and bold combination of imagery, the film has an operatic feel which befits such monumental events and it’s a rich feast for your eyes and ears. Melancholia is, a little like its main subject, a little frustrated and occasionally frustrating, but manages to be simultaneously outlandish and natural, capturing a unique point between the surreal and the normal and isn’t afraid to deal with big themes and big ideas, both on a personal and a global level.
Why see it at the cinema: The first five minutes alone demand to be seen on the biggest cinema screen possible with the sound cranked up to full, as they’re an experience in themselves. The rest ain’t bad, either.
The Score: 8/10