Cinema Review: Melancholia

Simon Collings reviews Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland.

Currently on General Release at UK Cinemas.

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier doesn’t seem to make standard, conventional films.  As well as dividing opinion among critics and filmgoers, he is perhaps best known, more recently, for his controversial art-house film Antichrist (2009), in which a seemingly straightforward horror flick turns into a sexually explicit romp.  His latest offering, Melancholia, follows suit: a disaster movie on the surface, but underneath dark and perverse themes are simmering.

Melancholia is split into two parts and follows the story of sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) & Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their somewhat strained relationship with each other and their family. The film opens with an apocalyptic dream-like sequence of planets colliding, birds falling from the sky and images of several main characters subsequently accepting their doomed fate. 

Part one focuses on Justine’s seemingly perfect wedding reception at a lush country estate where family feuds and infidelity bring an abrupt end to the proceedings.  Part two involves the aftermath of the wedding where an unstable Justine remains behind at the manor house with Claire, her young son and astronomy-enthusiast husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).  As they all wait excitedly for what scientists predict will be a harmless ‘fly-by’ from the planet Melancholia, tensions start to arise once more as Justine and Claire differ in their acceptance to the planet’s inevitable collision with Earth.

Melancholia certainly is not your regular ‘disaster-movie.’ Forget the likes of Independence Day (1996), Armageddon (1998) & The Day After Tomorrow (2004): if you’re after spectacular sequences involving the annihilation of major cities whilst its inhabitants ‘freak out’, then this is not for you.  This is a character-driven piece set against the backdrop of ‘the-end-of-the-world.’  It’s an unusual set-up – but does it work?

Well, von Trier, who also wrote the screenplay, does offer up some tense on-screen moments, thanks mainly to Dunst’s & Gainsbourg’s solid performances.  It is a credit to the two leads who, throughout,  just about carry the film despite a sluggish script, coming very close to accurate portrayals of sibling rivalry.  Dunst, who won Best Actress at Cannes, certainly breaks free from her warm-hearted girl next door persona she gained from the Spider-Man movies, whilst Gainsbourg – a von Trier regular – convinces as the distraught parent.  Sutherland also adds reliable support as the planet-enthusiast but all these performances are dwarfed by the stunning images of outer space which look and sound spectacular which certainly would not look out of place in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The problem is however, there are not enough of these in the film.

It is only the opening montage and the final scene of the film where we can really experience the cinematic emotion of the world ending.  This is a disappointment to say the least, as we are subjected to a forgettable wedding farce, supported by a script which is painfully slow – taking itself far too seriously.  Other faults include the fact that, despite the lucrative surroundings, there seems to be a lack of television or radio news reports – in fact there seems to be no social scope what-so-ever considering that the world is about to end.  This supposedly is to add somewhat to the eerie isolation the family find themselves in but surely most normal people would be glued to the TV screen.

Melancholia isn’t a terrible film but it’s not great either. It’s a new take on the ‘disaster-movie’ which relies on character development rather than special effects, however, in order to be successful this combination should at least provide the audience with characters and a script which stands up and keeps all involved.  Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving the audience contemplating the thought that this planet’s collision can’t come soon enough.

FMV Rating: **½

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