There are very few filmmakers that regard humanity with such disdain as Lars von Trier. With each of his films he finds a new way to bring out the worst in people, and his newest, Melancholia, veers very little from that path. His female leads must face the coming apocalypse as a newly discovered planet will soon crash into the Earth, but this time around he allows them slightly less extraneous torment, and even gives the audience a few laughs in the film’s first half. Though it is von Trier’s most accessible film to date, this gorgeously crafted character study of a woman overcome with soul crushing depression will not please the masses. In the auteur’s mind humanity is still an evil race, and most people just don’t have the gall for such dark ideology.
Leading the star studded cast as the newly wedded bride and the despondent sister, Kirsten Dunst plays Justine (the role she took home Best Actress for at Cannes). The first half of the film is titled after her, as it revolves around her slowly collapsing wedding party, and her struggle to maintain herself as a dark cloud of depression takes hold. Justine’s sister Claire, played by a controlling and nurturing Charlotte Gainsbourg, manages the entire lavish affair with help from her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and a hilariously meticulous wedding planner (Udo Kier). The two women’s parents, portrayed by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, are obviously poor role models of marriage candidates, and absolutely fail at helping maintain Justine’s initially sunny mood. Titled after Claire, the second half sees the roles of composure slowly switch as it becomes clear that the rogue planet will indeed hit Earth. Justine’s crippling depression subsides as she sees the apocalypse as a fitting end for humanity while Claire goes into full on panic.
Both von Trier and Dunst have struggled with real depression throughout their lives, and it is glaringly obvious that that fact has made a major impact on the production of this film. The condition is the film’s focal point. We see how it can come on like a light switch, how it can cause rash decision making, and how it can be physically debilitating. For Justine, even the sense of taste has been affected. The idea for the film was apparently born out of therapy session in which von Trier was told that most depressive people react better under stress because they already expect the worst to happen. Though his own issues are filtered through a pair of female characters, Melancholia is the controversial writer/director’s most personal film to date.
Many have complained about the hand held visual style that dominates the film, but Manuel Alberto Claro’s reactive cinematography lends itself to the natural spontaneity of the events on screen. Within the shaky frame there is a warmth in the first half that gives life to the disassociated family that it captures. The free form movement allows for moments to play out among the cast without the worry of blocking or planning. The result is a film full of life before the realization of death. Upon the film’s release, some bellyachers went so far as to say the film made them physically ill from the shaky image. If you’ve got an extreme sensitivity to motion sickness, take some Dramamine. You’ll be fine.
Long ago von Trier abandoned his Dogme 95 credo, embracing the use of special effects and an over dubbed soundtrack. Here, he makes use of both ingeniously. The CGI planetary imagery blends seamlessly in with the picturesque castle estate setting. Within the first 10 minutes the audience is blasted with sci-fi imagery and Wagner’s romanticized Tristan und Isolde at full volume. Melancholia‘s slow motion intro echoes that of Antichrist, but instead of delving into over dramatization, the highly stylized imagery and the sensational music feel in line with the colossal odds at stake.
Films this visually and aurally stunning deserve outstanding home releases, and Magnolia has come through with a top shelf transfer here. There is nothing to complain about in the picture department. It is flawless. Immense amount of detail and warm, natural colors are found throughout the length of this 2 and 15 minute feature. The film’s 5.1 DTS-HD master track sounds spectacular right out of the gate with the Wagner pieces taking front and center. Deep planetary rumbling can be felt on the low end, and peripherals field a variety of extraneous off camera sound. Awesome showings in the A/V department with this Blu-ray.
This is the first in a series of short featurettes that follow a similar format. This dissects the film, its origins, its running themes, and its characters. Though interspersed with clips from the film, this featurette is based on interviews with Dunst, von Trier, and various others involved in the production. It’s not incredibly in depth, but for the interviews alone its worth a peek. All told, these four main featurettes should have been combined into one substantial piece.
In the same style as the first featurette, this one focuses in on the science behind the story. Almost everything science fiction related within the film is based on scientific research, meaning that if a planet were to pass by ours, much of the odd happenings found in the film would take place in real life, and real scientists speak about it here in this piece.
The Visual Style
Here, cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro and von Trier speak on how they came to the final look of the film and their shooting process. The interviews are from the same sessions as the other featurettes.
This piece is the only featurette that breaks out of the generic short extra outline and visually dissects many of the film’s composite shots, CGI effects, and in camera effects.
HDNet: A Look At Melancholia
In typical HDNet fashion, this is a bland promo piece that reps the synopsis with interview clips you’ve already seen from the other featurettes.
There are two trailers, both portray the film well, with plenty of visual flair, a taste of Wagner, and enough plot points to give you the general idea of what the film is about.
Love him or hate him, Lars von Trier is a true original with some of the best directorial chops in the business. He moves between styles with seeming ease, and always comes out with an artistic vision all his own. Not to mention his ability to conjure some of the best screen performances of their respective year with each of his films. With Melancholia he continues to move forward, perfecting his bleak visions into wholly enthralling cinematic experiences. The film is, without a doubt, one of 2011′s few undeniable masterpieces.
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