Melancholia / Lars von Trier / 2011 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Metaphor for depression; Operatic overture; Music
Side Effects: Acting; Unconvincing characters

A mysterious planet hidden in the night’s sky coyly reveals itself to be on a collision course with Earth, leaving the affluent family hunkered down on a country estate to come to terms with their inescapable fate. There’s no way out until the mass in the sky blots out their world. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is built upon this very strong and effective metaphor for crippling depression, but he’s unable to render the theme exact and vivid beyond this central device.

The first problem is Kristen Dunst, who received an acting prize at Cannes for her role as Justine. It’s a juicy role for an actress, full of hysterics, loaded facial expressions and physical performances, and Dunst succumbs to the temptation to highlight these symptoms of depressions without suggesting it’s deeper roots. In the film’s first movement, Justine trudges through her wedding day, trying to put on a brave face despite the sickness inside her, but neither Dunst nor von Trier’s screenplay successfully capture Justine’s nuanced relationship to her affliction. The wedding is populated by a host of other annoying characters who act strangely, contradict their natures and keep the audience at bay. Luckily John Hurt is around to add some much-needed recognizable humanity to the proceedings.

If von Trier doesn’t deliver the characters and interactions needed to support his film, the central metaphor of the planet Melancholia and its bold visual representation succeed. The film opens with a prologue as striking as the one in von Trier’s Antichrist, but not quite as risible, complete with expressive operatic overtures, heavily stylized framings and super slow motion. His best gift is creating these intensely dramatic, painterly tableau-like images, but this style is at odds with the much more spartan approach that typifies the bulk of the film. This “Dogme 95” style works for small dramas, but the tone and vision of Melancholia is much more grand and epic and demands a similarly grand visual style.

Von Trier’s central idea of observing people’s reactions to an impending tragedy (both the annihilation of Earth and the specter of depression) is fascinating, but the way this plays out in the film’s characters is inconsistent and unsatisfying; there’s little subtly in it. Strangely, it’s almost as if I wish Melancholia were more pretentious, embracing von Trier’s instincts towards something even more extreme and theatrical.

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