Melancholia

Melancholia

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Lars von Trier's sublime invitation to the end of the world is a grand film by a master story teller who does not repeat himself. The images of the overture, a palimpsest of what is to come, will haunt your dreams, and maybe mingle with the nightmares you might have had in the past weeks, if you happen to have been in New York for the earthquake, hurricane Irene and the 9/11 anniversary (or visited the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the Met.)

Von Trier's apocalypse starts with a most painterly slide show: Kirsten Dunst's pained face while dead birds are falling from the sky. A sundial in a beautiful park by the sea at night. A Pieter Bruegel winter painting burning to ashes. Charlotte Gainsbourg's footsteps sinking knee-deep into a golf course. A black horse collapsing in the night into itself. Vines clinging to Dunst as a running bride, before she turns into a pre-Raphaelite water corpse, a filmic copy of Sir John Everett Millais' Ophelia, drowning with her lilies-of-the-valley and everyone and everything else as two worlds collide and we listen to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.

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All of this before the opening credits. Where Terrence Malick proposed his version of the creation of the world in the Tree Of Life (2011), Lars von Trier seduces us with his romantic visions of a horribly harmonious end of all life in two parts.

PART ONE: JUSTINE

Kirsten Dunst, who plays Justine (and deservedly won the award for best actress at Cannes for this portrayal), is a breathtaking melancholic. On her way to get married, at her sister's husband's castle by the sea, she tries so desperately to live up to her family's expectations of happiness. Everything outwardly is so perfect, the setting, the schedule her sister (the equally excellent Charlotte Gainsbourg), has prepared with the help of a wedding planner who refers to what's going on as "his" wedding.

The planner is played by Fassbinder (and von Trier) favorite Udo Kier, who adds one of several lovely Lubitsch touches to the weight of the wedding party. Another touch, the family calling the butler "Little Father" like Greta Garbo does in Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939), turns sour in part two, when they clearly know nothing about the servant's personal life because they never bothered to ask. A clever quote about caring replaces the actual caring.

The facades are slipping. The father of the bride Dexter (a spoon-stealing, twinkling, grabbing John Hurt) loves all women named Betty, or he calls them all Betty, we will never know. When he calls his daughter Justine Betty, the bumbling charming stock character opens up wide, and turns into John Huston's character in Polanski's Chinatown (1974), or the father in Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (1998) (von Trier thanks Vinterberg in the credits), and we are reminded of his menacingly neutral pitiless voice-over from Dogville (2003), which presents us with the abyss of human behavior.

A feisty Charlotte Rampling, as the sisters' mother Gaby tells the wedding party what she thinks of rituals like that: "I hate marriages, especially when they involve my closest family members." She takes a bath when the cake is to be cut. What does this have to do with the end of the world, you may wonder? The so-called happiest day of one's life with all the family drama that comes with it is a swell party indeed.

Well, for Justine, and for the director, it seems, this kind of event of happiness is worse than the end of the world. Not so for the sister of the bride, Claire, who seems to genuinely love her life on the estate with her rich scientist and star specialist husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, wonderfully convincing under his various protections), her son Leo (who calls Justine Aunt Steel-Breaker, which I heard as Aunt Deal-Breaker for the first half of the film) and all the horses, and servants and luxuries and breathtaking views of the planets in the night sky.

PART TWO: CLAIRE

Charlotte Gainsbourg's Claire is as clear as Justine is just. She is afraid because a planet called Melancholia that was hidden behind the sun is possibly going to collide with earth. The internet is filled with it. "Have you been online again?" her husband scolds. The horses are restless, they sense that something is not right. Suddenly it snows on the golf course in the summer. The electricity goes off just at the moment Claire starts printing out the "Dance of Death" of the two planets. The castle is prepared.

Justine, who lives with her sister now to recover from the wedding, is clearly more prepared for a natural disaster than anyone. The death bringing planets in the night sky have an almost soothing effect on the melancholic Justine. She is more in her element with the looming disaster constellation than being in middle of the triumvirate of an inarticulate smiley face of a husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard), her menacing sarcastic advertising boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgaard, father of Alexander) and his newly hired puppy clerk with the perfect education Tim (Brady Corbertt), a trinity of masculinity so unbearable, that the end of the world appears cheery.

Von Trier does not need to worry that this latest film is too beautiful and lacking in disturbances for the audience.

Enjoyment of beauty is not immediately punished in this film, contrary to von Trier's prior works. Costume designer Manon Rasmussen does a great job dressing the sisters for every occasion. I must agree, peach-coloured corduroy pants with a gray cashmere v-neck sweater are perfect for a pre-apocalyptic breakfast on the terrace. The dark burgundy nail polish Gainsbourg wears for the wedding should be marketed as Melancholia Red.

The singing Björk on her way to the electric chair in Dancer In The Dark (2000), the saintly promiscuity of Emily Watson's little mermaid in Breaking The Waves (1996), Nicole Kidman being raped by all the good citizens of Dogville - von Trier loves to ruin the pleasure of his audience. In Melancholia, he respects our (and maybe his own?) enjoyment of a sublime end of the world, with Wagner, and horses, and beautiful women on a lush lawn on a cliff by the sea.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2011
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Two sisters' relationship is examined as a planet threatens to bring about the apocalypse.
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Read more Melancholia reviews:

Chris *****
David Graham **1/2

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier, James Cagnard, Jesper Christensen, Stefan Cronwall, Deborah Fronko, Cameron Spurr

Year: 2011

Runtime: 136 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany

Festivals:

New York 2011

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