Last night’s NYFF screening was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which I’ve been eagerly anticipating since it debuted at Cannes (and not because of his ridiculous Nazi comments). While not a perfect film by any means, Melancholia is beautiful and mesmerizing. Clocking in at over two hours, it’s definitely a draining experience, but it’s meant to be; the end of the world should be devastating.
The film follows a young woman named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her family as the earth is approached by a recently-discovered planet that has been hiding behind the sun. Like most of von Trier’s films, it’s divided into sections. The first major section (after the prologue) portrays Justine’s wedding reception. She has just married a sweet, not-too-bright man named Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and, although everything seems fine at first, we slowly begin to get the sense that all is not well with her. Her smiles are a bit too bright, her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a bit too worried, and her new husband is trying a bit too hard. The shaky, handheld camera in this sequence jumps around from guest to guest, nervously looking back and forth between Justine and Michael as if the camera itself is hoping everything is going to work out.
I won’t spoil things by going into what the second part entails, but the major problem with the film is a marked difference in tone and pacing between the two parts. They feel almost like separate films, two mood pieces that happen to be about the same people. That said, however, both sections are beautiful in different ways, and they are tied together formally and thematically by the prologue. Filmed in extreme slow-motion so that the shots look almost still, the prologue is one of the highlights of the movie. Each shot takes your breath away with its rich colors and compositions that echo famous paintings (one of which is the poster above). Here’s an example, although the colors in this still don’t do the shot justice:
Performance-wise, Melancholia is impeccable. Kirsten Dunst gives the most subtle performance of her career, using minute changes in her facial muscles to slowly betray her creeping depression. Charlotte Gainsbourg, as her long-suffering, slightly neurotic sister, is both soulful and brittle. You sense she has been weathered down to the bone by her trying sister and arrogant husband, played with a touch of dry humor by Kiefer Sutherland. As Michael, Alexander Skarsgard is the exact opposite of his True Blood avatar, Eric Northman. He is awkward and utterly sweet, trying desperately to make Justine happy, and Skarsgard makes him completely believable. His father, Stellan Skarsgard, gives an amusing performance himself as Justine’s obnoxious boss. The cast is rounded out by John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Jesper Christensen (the “Surgeon of Birkenau” in The Debt).
In the end, Melancholia left me feeling drained and awed by the power of its images, many of which are still haunting me a day later. It has its problems, but it’s the most beautiful apocalypse any of us is likely to see.