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Film review: 'Melancholia' never felt so good

November 18, 2011|By Andy Klein
  • Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia," a Magnolia Pictures release. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia," a Magnolia…

Lars von Trier has long rivaled Hamlet as the most melancholy of melancholy Danes. With “Melancholia,” his new film, he makes it official.

Fifteen years ago, Von Trier had his first real American success with “Breaking the Waves,” which earned newcomer Emily Watson an Oscar nomination. The best known of his subsequent works — “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville” and “Manderlay” — all replicated that film's template: Take a likable young woman (Bjork, Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard, respectively) and torment her for two or three hours.

By 2009's “Antichrist,” his last and worst feature, this concept was exhausted, straining and resorting to outrageous violence and sensationalism. The new film is vastly more interesting, perhaps because of its autobiographical underpinnings: Von Trier was recovering from severe depression. (Indeed, the purpose of “Antichrist” was to lift him out of this state by forcing him to work.)

“Melancholia” opens with a visual overture — a gorgeous, stylized flashforward of still and extreme slo-mo images, which tells us up front where the film is heading … toward the destruction of the earth and the snuffing of all life in the universe.

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The structure is almost perfectly symmetrical: This seven-minute sequence and the seven-minute closing credit crawl bookend two main sections, each almost exactly an hour. The first takes place at a wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in a deeper performance than she has ever delivered) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), at the palatial home of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is no less impressive here than Dunst) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Throughout what can legitimately be dubbed The Worst Wedding Night … Ever are (at first) hints that something is way strange about Justine. Soon we see what's strange, as Justine's erratic behavior — the result of her melancholia — turns the evening into a catastrophe.

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