MELANCHOLIA Review: Peculiar, Lengthy but Meditative

Melancholia offers up transcendent visuals, and with Kirsten Dunst's career-best performance, a stunningly authentic portrayal of depression. It's as beguiling and engrossing as any of Lars von Trier's films.

rating: 3.5

Quite too much has been made in recent years of Lars von Trier's stature as a controversial filmmaker, following the release of his visceral shocker Antichrist, and more recently amid the premiere of his new film Melancholia at the Cannes Film Festival, his peculiar press conference remarks which caused him to be deemed persona non grata by the festival. Tear away the oddball image the director is apparently fashioning for himself, and what you get with Melancholia is a serene, meditative take on a familiar end-of-the-world scenario, given a wholly unfamiliar and totally disarming treatment to grand effect. Beginning with a visually mesmerising sequence depicting the iminent impact of the titular celestial body with our own Earth, von Trier then divides his narrative into two parts, one depicting the tide of depression consuming wife-to-be Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the other following her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as she tries to come to terms with the possibility that everything she knows might be coming to an end with this catastrophe. Understated and deliberate almost to a fault, Melancholia's similarities to Terrence Malick's ethereal The Tree of Life only begin with the superficialities. Stylistically and thematically, the two are spiritual siblings, bathing a contemplative narrative in gorgeous visuals while ultimately being elevated by thoughtful, composed performances. Inexorably more focused and less frustrating than Malick's opus, the film nevertheless traces along the same lines, juxtaposing human fragility with the natural ebb and flow of the Universe. However, whereas Malick's film unfolds as an angry letter to God, questioning our place among the stars, von Trier's is a more focused, less esoteric character study, more keen to depict characters simply "as they are" rather than use them to make a more grand statement about life's big questions. To that effect, the film's success indeed hinges on the central dramatic performance, a magnificent portrayal by Kirsten Dunst, a noteworthy achivement not only because it pulls the young actress out of the duldrums of the Hollywood mire, but because it's among the most authentic depictions of depression put to celluloid. So effectively is the performance, in fact, that you'll probably find Justine rather unlikeable throughout; the mood swings make her difficult to warm to, and Dunst grabs at this facet with great tenacity, capturing the essence of a depressed person so well, as anyone who has had to deal with people in this condition is likely to identify with. The film doesn't want for personable characters, though; Keifer Sutherland deserves particular praise as Claire's husband, John, the poor, bemused schlub stuck in the middle of these characters, as exasperated with the situation as we are. He demonstrates a nary-seen comic timing, especially during the wedding scenes of the film's first half, mirroring our own incredulity at Justine's bizarre, moody behaviour, and his own wife's apparently irritaional fear of the world ending. John Hurt is also good fun as the Justine and Claire's boozy father Dexter, who brings necessary comic balance to the dramas that populate the wedding, while Alexander SkarsgÄrd is wholly empathic is Justine's unfortunate, put-upon husband, John. Probing the crumbling underbelly of the middle-class with the robust satirical chops of, aptly, the very first Dogme 95 film, Festen, von Trier has crafted a strange yet alluring sci-fi drama which manages to have its cake and eat it thanks to the dilligent care paid to the performances above all else. Certainly challenging in its length and sparseness, Melancholia nevertheless offers up transcendent visuals, and with Kirsten Dunst's career-best performance, a stunningly authentic portrayal of depression. As beguiling and engrossing as any of Lars von Trier's films. Melancholia is released in the UK on Friday.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.