STARRING: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet

2011, 136 Minutes, Directed by:
Lars von Trier

This art house science fiction movie is one of those genuine love it or hate it affairs . . .

If you’re the type who likes, let’s say, Transformers 3 and the Resident Evil movies, then you’d be driven to distraction by Melancholia’s deliberate and languid pacing. (The person sitting next to me in the cinema was visibly bored during the entire flick. Then again, it might have been the poor air-conditioning . . .)

If you’re the more patient sort who thrives on the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and other so-called “art” flicks you’ll have a much better time at it. If you’re the type who loots the local Waterstones during citywide riots instead of the trendy brand name athletic clothes store, then Melancholia is probably the flick for you.

Personally I found myself veering between the two extremes of loving and hating it . . .

Melancholia kicks off promisingly with some surrealist slo-mo imagery of the sort that they had back in the (depending on your point of view) “pretentious” ‘Seventies, but which has gone mostly out of fashion in our post-Spielberg age in which the point of the exercise is to sell tickets and not make any personal statements. Set to the melancholy strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Prelude, the sequence boasts some impressive CGI effects and the sort of imagery that will linger in the memory for days afterwards. (Interestingly enough the Wagner piece is the only music used throughout the entire movie.)

Then Melancholia scales down in scope from the apocalyptic and galactic to the up close and personal. It is Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-man’s girlfriend) wedding day on a posh golf estate owned by her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Dunst’s character has every reason to be happy: her groom-to-be doesn’t seem like a bad guy, her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) genuinely cares about her and she has been promoted from mere copywriter to art director at the advertising firm she works at. Sure, her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) is an overbearing bully but, heck, any employment in today’s depressed economy is okay, isn’t it?

"The movie should have been titled 'Full-blown Depression' instead!"

Justine however doesn’t think so and is wholly unhappy with her circumstances and her impending wedding, and acts like a spoiled brat trying her best to wreck the proceedings - telling her boss off, having sex on the golf course with an underling at her company, and (gasp!) being late for the cake cutting ceremony, etc.

Justine obviously suffers from depression (in this sense the movie’s title is inaccurate: it should have been titled “Full-blown Depression” instead). However it is difficult to be truly sympathetic towards over-privileged rich people with no real problems, even if they do suffer from medical conditions. It is however a testament to Kirsten Dunst’s fine performance that one’s attitude towards her character veers from outright irritation to understanding several times during the film.

Incidentally, Justine’s parents – played by veteran actors Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt – aren’t much better however. They seem to have recently watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and publicly bicker during the reception. This first half of the movie is filmed in the intimate shaky handheld camera “home movie” style that will make you wish that someone would please buy the director a tripod for his camera.

The second half is better. With her wedding thoroughly ruined the movie fast-forwards a few months. Justine is back at her sister’s place where the wedding took place. Justine seems barely functional now, unable to perform even the most basic of functions such as taking a bath on her own. A plot of sorts finally kicks in too: the vague sense of doom hinted at throughout the first half of the movie finally crystallizes in the form of a giant “rogue” planet named Melancholia (geddit?), which is on a potential collision course with Earth.

“Life is only on Earth. And not for long,” Justine chirpily intones. Her brother-in-law doesn’t agree. The planet will miss Earth he says, but he still buys some emergency food supplies to be on the safe side though. Suddenly Justine’s behavior makes perfect sense: we are all doomed it seems.

In case you don’t get any of the obvious symbolism about the giant looming planet named Melancholia about to subsume our entire world or the meaning of the movie’s title, Justine’s sister (Gainsbourg) helpfully consults Wikipedia at some point. In another scene Justine pages through some glossy art books and director Lars von Trier makes sure the audience gets where he got the inspiration for his shots of Dunst floating down a stream in her wedding dress is from, namely Millais’ Ophelia painting.

This aside, I found my own feelings towards the movie veering from irritation (maybe it really was the aircon) to rapt attention during the film’s second half which is like the proverbial freight train crash playing off in slow motion.

Boasting some excellent special effects, the second half is claustrophobic and harrowing. The movie’s finale is crushingly powerful and will stick with you for days, which is more than one can say of most of today’s Hollywood special effects-driven sci-fi offerings. Stick with Melancholia and it will reward you amply even though you would probably want to hit the bottle soon after seeing it. Make no mistake, Melancholia is this year’s genuine feel bad movie. However make sure that you watch it in a properly air-conditioned cinema . . .


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