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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 3.13%
Just Average: 6.25%
Pretty Crappy: 3.13%
Sucks: 3.13%

4 reviews, 8 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Dunst Checks Out"
5 stars

Truth be told, although controversial Danish director Lars Von Trier has been lauded around the world as one of the great filmmakers of our time, I have never cared much for his work. Oh sure, I concede that he has demonstrated an undeniable ability to get strong and memorable performances from actresses as varied as Emily Watson ("Breaking the Waves"), Nicole Kidman ("Dogville") and even pop star Bjork ("Dancer in the Dark") and his films usually contain at least one or two absolutely sublime cinematic passages (such as the haunting prologue to "Antichrist" in which passionate lovemaking and unimaginable tragedy are woven together into a haunting and unforgettable tapestry). However, with perhaps the singular exception of the aforementioned "Dancer in the Dark," those assets are too often overwhelmed by his incredibly arch and pretentious directorial approach, narratives that tackle complex subjects like racism, sexism and mankind's innate cruelty towards itself with all the subtlety of an exceptionally ham-fisted freshman creative writing student and gimmicks, such as the infamous and short-lived "Dogma" filmmaking approach that stressed naturalism above everything else, that spend more time calling attention to themselves than they do in helping move the proceedings along. Combine all that with his tendency to make wild proclamations during press conferences that cause enough of a scandal that they inevitably wind up overshadowing the films he was trying to promote in the first place and you have a guy who has always struck me as being someone who was less interested in being a great filmmaker than in playing a caricature of what some people think of when they picture the most obnoxious kind of pretentious European art-house hack.

And yet, despite my general weariness towards his previous efforts, the notion of a new film from him usually inspires a little bit of excitement in my increasingly jaded soul. For one thing, the prospect of a new Von Trier joint almost invariably means that there will be some kind of accompanying scandal, usually involving the sometimes shocking content of his films (such as the brutal physical depiction of the battle of the sexes in "Antichrist") or the equally shocking, if not downright insane, things that he spouts off at press conferences that invariably wind up stealing the focus away from his work. For another, I keep hoping that he will one day make use of the genuine filmmaking gifts that he does indeed posses and create something just as brilliant and awe-inspiring as he clearly believes himself to be. With his latest film, "Melancholia," he certainly delivered in regards to the first part with a now-infamous press conference following its world premiere at the Cannes film festival earlier this spring in which he responded to a question with a long and rambling answer that found him stating that he felt some sympathy with the Nazis, a move that effectively got him barred from the rest of the festival and which might have cost the film any shot it might have had at the top prize. (It also obfuscated an equally uncalled for potshot at fellow Danish filmmaker Suzanne Bier that at least had the grace to be nastily amusing.) The difference this time around is that for once, he has more than delivered on the second part as well because "Melancholia" is a real knockout, an ambitious, audacious and awe-inspiring epic-sized melodrama that is by turns darkly funny, deeply felt and never less than utter absorbing for every single one of it 135 minutes. This isn't just one of the year's best and boldest films, this is Von Trier's masterpiece and a work that will enrapture acolytes and detractors alike.

After a stunning prologue that I shall discuss a little later, the first half of the film begins as the guests arrive for a lavish reception to celebrate the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Things get off on the wrong foot when the guests of honor wind up running ridiculously late for their own celebration due to limo trouble and while everything looks picture perfect on the surface, it doesn't take long for things to completely fall apart. It soon becomes apparent that Justine is a troubled and depressed soul and despite this being what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, she is anything but cheerful. There are the minor irritations of a wedding planner (Udo Kier) who is pissed at her for throwing his perfectly arranged schedule out of whack and her obnoxious boss (Stellan Skarsgard) at the ad agency where she works who continually hounds her for a new ad slogan throughout the evening. Her long-separated parents are no help--Dad (John Hurt) is a self-absorbed goof who is one of those guys hell-bent on always being the most colorful guy in the room while her bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling) turns her toast into a bitter denunciation of the entire institution of marriage. Every time Justine tries to be alone for a few minutes to gather herself, she is hounded by sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) for messing up her own party and reminded by wealthy brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) about just how much the entire affair is costing him. As for Michael, he is perfectly pleasant but is too busy being perfectly pleasant to even notice the degree to which Justine is suffering. Eventually, in one final act of rage and desperation, Justine does something that not only brings the party to an end but guarantees that no one will have to worry about attending any future anniversary celebrations.

The second half of the film picks up a few weeks later as the spouseless, jobless and near-catatonic Justine arrives at the estate belonging to Claire and her family for some hoped-for rest and relaxation. However, the arrival of Justine and her all-consuming depression is mirrored by the simultaneous arrival of a recently discovered planet known, ironically, as Melancholia. When seen in the first half, it was a lovely, if slightly disconcerting, orb hovering over everything from a safe distance but it now appears as though it may be on a collision course with Earth that would destroy the entire planet. Amateur astronomer and general know-it-all John insists that scientists have determined that Melancholia will miss us entirely and leave nothing other than a beautiful sight to see but the fact that he forbids Claire or their young son from using the Internet and is surreptitiously hiding emergency supplies in the barn out back suggests that he knows more than he is letting on. It soon becomes clear that Melancholia is head straight for Earth and that life as we know it is about to come to an exceptionally cataclysmic end. However, while the formerly stable John and Claire begin to fall apart--she descends into hysterics while he simply disappears--it turns out that Justine's pronounced angst and self-absorption have left her peculiarly well-equipped to face the literal annihilation of everything that she has ever known.

If you are thinking that perhaps humanity will be saved by a last-second course change or the efforts of a rag-tag oil drillers, Von Trier scotches that possibility right at the start with a stunning prologue featuring an increasingly odd tableau of visuals culminating with the destruction of Earth by Melancholia, all to the strains of the overture from "Tristan and Isolde." As opening sequences go, this is one of the more audacious to come along even by Von Trier's tendency to start his films off with a bang, and at first glance, it might seem as though he has made a strange tactical error by giving away his finale so early in the game. That might be the case if he was only interested in telling a story about the end of the world but that is only secondary to his real purpose, which is to offer up a powerful and true cinematic depiction of paralyzing depression, an illness that he has publicly admitted to struggling with in the past. For the extended wedding reception that dominates the first half of the film, Justine will strike most people at first as being obnoxious, self-centered and generally irritating (much in the way that Von Trier himself has been perceived over the years) but even as that happens, he is subtly demonstrating a certain amount of sympathy for her as well--as vexing as she may come across, there is the sense that she is at the helpless mercy of her mercurial mood swings, which is more than can be said for the equally annoying people who insensitively seem to assume that her funk is all her fault and that she could just snap out of it at any moment if she wanted to do so. Furthermore, by heading off the possibility of a last-minute reprieve right at the start, Von Trier has also cleverly figured out a way to get viewers to see things on Justine's very specific wavelength; since we know that all hope is lost, much as she herself is feeling, it becomes surprisingly easy to follow her as she quietly and to some extent gracefully accepts what is coming while ignoring the others as they go about the business of trying to preserve their futile existence.

All of this talk about depression and the end of the world may make "Melancholia" seem like an exceptionally dreary slog that only the most masochistic of viewers would willingly fork over $10 in order to witness. And yet, as grim as it may sound, "Melancholia" is actually an enormously entertaining work, although "entertaining" may not be quite the right word to use. The first half of the film, in which the veneer of respectability at an outwardly dignified social function is brutally stripped away, is as mordantly funny as the similar trips that Luis Bunuel took viewers on in such films as "The Exterminating Angel" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" while the second is as legitimately touching and graceful a passage of filmmaking as Von Trier has ever presented and demonstrates that he can indeed tell a story without relying on all the shock visuals or off-putting distancing techniques that he has so often relied upon in the past. As Justine, Kirsten Dunst has been given the difficult task of trying to make audiences care about one of the more abrasive characters to come around in a while and does so spectacularly in a role that expertly reveals her basic humanity while never short-selling her generally abrasive nature (Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance) and Von Trier has surrounded her with a huge cast of supporting players who also shine as well. Among the key players, Gainsbourg is equally compelling and heartbreaking as Justine's sister, Sutherland is hilarious as the smug brother-in-law whose sense of superiority over everything literally comes crashing down upon him and Charlotte Rampling is brutally hilarious as a mother so embittered with life that she would go out of her way to spoil things for her own daughter just to ensure that everyone around has the opportunity to be just as miserable as she is. Visually, the film is a knockout as well as Von Trier provides viewers with one arresting image after another culminating in a finale that is among the most breathtaking things I have ever seen unfold on a movie screen.

Although "Melancholia" is a film unlike any other--it even feels removed from Von Trier's own other work--I did find myself reflecting about one movie in particular after watching it and that would be Terrence Malick's equally great "The Tree of Life." Sure, it is true that both of them debuted at Cannes this years and going in were seen as the chief competitors for the Palme d'or--the Malick film wound up winning although some said that "Melancholia" might very well have taken the award if it hadn't been for Von Trier's aforementioned outburst. However, while the two films would seem to be otherwise dissimilar, they do have a few points in common. Both wrestle with spiritual and intellectual questions regarding faith and man's place in the universe--while "The Tree of Life" offers up an eye-opening look at the beginning of time via the prism of a family drama, "Melancholia" does the same with the bitter end. More importantly, both films are major works from major filmmakers who aren't afraid to swing for the fences by telling deeply personal and wildly idiosyncratic stories about subjects that clearly fascinate them instead of trying to churn out yet another empty-headed blockbuster like practically everyone else in the industry. "Melancholia" is a real work of art, a film so powerful, so profound and so grandly entertaining that I am almost willing to forgive Von Trier for that "Dogville" nonsense as a result.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22470&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/10/11 16:39:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/30/19 Edler Not my cup of tea. The theme is everything sucks and I don’t like that. 3 stars
8/31/12 Dr. Hoo Slow, depressing, multilayered, absolutely stunning. 5 stars
4/19/12 Marty Depressing, haunting. Silly message bout crazies being happier at apocalypse 3 stars
3/31/12 mr.mike The Earth did not move for me. 2 stars
3/09/12 die SHIT 1 stars
3/02/12 Katherine The end of the world never looked so beautiful. Mesmerizing. 5 stars
11/17/11 Man Out Six Bucks So many nested layers of dispair to which lovely Melancholia fulfills a beautiful death. 5 stars
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  11-Nov-2011 (R)
  DVD: 13-Mar-2012


  DVD: 13-Mar-2012

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