Thursday, August 2, 2012

Short Take: Melancholia

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The films of Danish writer-director Lars von Trier are insufferably pretentious as a matter of course. Melancholia is no exception. One knows it the moment one hears the prelude of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde over the opening shots. Von Trier doesn’t employ the incomparably sublime music for irony, and he returns to it throughout the picture. It predictably outclasses the film, and it's a sign of how full the director is of himself that he doesn’t recognize this. That said, the first half of the movie isn’t bad. The montage that begins the film is a clever collection of surreal allegorical imagery. It’s followed by an enjoyable black farce depicting the wedding reception of a couple (Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård) at the manor estate of the bride’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). If the antics of the bride’s misanthropic mother (Charlotte Rampling), whimsical father (John Hurt), and boorish employer (Stellan Skarsgård) weren’t enough, the Dunst character suffers from a depressive disorder that has her alternating between episodes of withdrawal and acting out. In one moment she’ll be ducking out of the reception to take a bath or a nap, and in another she’ll be having sex with a co-worker on the estate grounds. It’s perversely amusing. But in the second half, the picture shifts from farce to fable, and it becomes ridiculously overblown. A previously unknown planet (called “Melancholia”--hint, hint) is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. Von Trier shows how the Dunst, Gainsbourg, and Sutherland characters respond to the impending apocalypse. Surprisingly, it’s the Dunst character who retains her composure. It’s a nice irony, but the allegorical framework is too over-the-top for it to be effective. Von Trier demonstrates a complete lack of perspective about his material. But he does get a superb performance from Kirsten Dunst, who impressively portrays the character’s divergent moods and transcends the overall pretension. Mileage may vary with a viewer's opinion of the film; it was voted the Best Picture of 2011 by the National Society of Film Critics. Dunst received the group's Best Actress prize.

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