Marriage and impending doom in 'Melancholia' 

'MELANCHOLIA': Kiefer Sutherland, Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard star.
  • 'MELANCHOLIA': Kiefer Sutherland, Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard star.

The opening shots of "Melancholia" depict a tableau of surreal moments captured on and around the grounds of a grand estate and golf course — a mother clutching a child, a horse falling to rest, weather amok — while a blue-and-white marbled ball several times the size of Earth creeps up on our planet. As the operatic score rises and soars, the planet wanders closer and initiates a collision that sends our beloved continental plates flaking away into space like the hide of a pulverized M&M.

With that, "Melancholia" announces it's ending the world with a finality rarely imagined in even the grimmest science-fiction flicks. (Alternate, rejected title: "Bummer.") In its ambition and scope, you have to grant that "Melancholia" is undertaking a broad portrait of something, with visual indulgences best suited to big-screen viewing. By the end you have to grant that even if it fell shy, it admirably aimed to die trying.

As if the end of Earth weren't bad enough, we soon open the narrative portion of the film to find that Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are dreadfully late for their wedding reception. Their limo driver can't negotiate a tight curve, and as both bride and groom take turns trying to steer, they seem chipper, healthy. But upon arriving at the palatial home of their hostess and host — Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) — Justine fades. She connects with neither her gadfly father (John Hurt, delightfully) nor her brittle, cynical mother (Charlotte Rampling) and she continues to slink away from the party and from her family. In a second act with Claire at its center, the sisters cope with Justine's emotional state while the news of the planet Melancholia's approach comes to dominate the thoughts of John and of his and Claire's young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr).

Lars von Trier, the director and screenwriter, overshadowed the initial reception for "Melancholia" at Cannes when he invoked Hitler stupidly at a presser, but the film nonetheless was nominated for the Palme d'Or and Dunst was dubbed Best Actress. She has never been finer, scratching out Justine's pained lurch through life with a dark, heavy savagery. Like the onrushing Melancholia, her sadness overtakes the screen and threatens to extirpate all it touches. Von Trier alternates between sniper and mugger in his framing, at turns sweeping over the grounds of the estate or drawing back for a sunrise starring Melancholia, but lingering longer in the drawn corners of Dunst's mouth, the haunted looks in Gainsbourg's eyes as the planet's approach morphs from a novelty to a threat. Through them, von Trier can paint this infinite tragedy with tight, intimate strokes.

Anything looks absurdly small when set against the impending end of the planet; that von Trier sets "Melancholia" amid a wedding and celebration by the ostentatiously wealthy seems a jab at both. To that end, the film suggests that blood is thicker than marriage. As the end of the world looms, "Melancholia" shrinks its cast, just as many of us are prone to in bad times, drawing near to those already closest, those still at hand even after hard shoves. With such a heavy title and short view of the world's survival, "Melancholia" is tempting to read as a depression allegory. In that it must be regarded as the most pessimistic film of all time, were it not for the fact that, amid the squooshing of the entire planet, family may yet clutch tight. For that, at least, we may as well be grateful and remain calm.


Film Details

  • Melancholia

    • Rated R - Drama, SciFi/Fantasy, Suspense/Thriller
Rated R · 130 min. · 2011
Official Site: www.melancholiathemovie.com
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet and Udo Kier


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