Film Review / If you know the name Lars von Trier, and his often determinedly baffling work, then you know what you might be in for, both good (brilliant insights) and bad (deep cynicism) in Melancholia, a pan-Nordic feature in English. If you don’t know von Trier, proceed with caution: This director doesn’t let anyone, audience included, off the hook.
This helmer’s characters are almost always exasperating–moody, secretive, strangely-motivated, contradictory and often self-destructive. Of course, so are all of us, upon occasion–but not in the same league as (most of) von Trier’s subjects.
This film, divided into two parts, and having two intertwining plotlines, is ambitious and just the tiniest bit pretentious: (l) walking wounded humanity (neurosis, psychosis) and (2) the probable imminent end of the world. (A rogue planet is moving closer and closer to our own tragic planet.)
The first part, “Justine,” centers on a fresh bride (Kirsten Dunst in a bravura performance) who seems “okay” (we meet her and her groom when they arrive two hours late for their wedding reception) before she has a classic meltdown, including infidelity on her wedding day, copious weeping and interruption of the celebration by leaving to take a bath. This chick goes ‘round the bend.
Part deux is called “Claire,” Justine’s caretaking sister, as played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and centers on family dynamics: Claire’s super-rich husband (a taciturn Kiefer Sutherland) is less than enthusiastic about Justine, although he paid for the opulent wedding at his giant estate. In fact, his main interest seems to be a telescope he’s set up in order to watch the progress, if that is the word, of the rogue planet, which he thinks will, at the last minute, veer off, Iniki-like, and miss the earth.
These characters, including Alexander Sarsgaard as the put-upon groom, interact, or not, in a roundelay of human striving, trying to hold each other together with decreasing success. Cynicism abounds: Justine and Claire’s mother (the great Charlotte Rampling) detests marriage and says so at the reception and appears there only to appease her depressive daughter. Justine’s boss shows up with a job-promotion for her and demands that she complete a piece of work right then and there at the reception.
The opening overture to Tristan and Isolde forms the recurrent music motif to the film, and is quite effective, latching onto found prestige. In fact, the non-verbal opening passages of the film, images correlating Justine’s addled subconscious, might well be the only “great” part of Melancholia, which has been receiving rave reviews just about everywhere. But not here: The movie is amazingly ambitious and has some brilliant passages, but great it’s not. And it’s not conventionally entertaining. It takes an equally ambitious audience, sticking it out for alleged greatness.
The film is insightful about the nature of depression, is beautifully photographed and well acted. Does this story end with a bang or a whimper? Well, one or the other.
A rogue opinion: Tree of Life is a far greater achievement, avoiding the Nordic bleakness running like a fault-line through von Trier’s Melancholia.