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MOVIE REVIEW: Melancholia

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland

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Apocalypses are both literal and figurative in Lars von Trier’s sci-fi chamber drama Melancholia, the Danish auteur’s latest symphony of suffering that equates one woman’s mental disintegration to the end of the world. The film’s title not only refers to the gigantic blue planet on a crash course with Earth, but also the crumbling emotional state of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a talented young ad executive who is celebrating her wedding at a posh country estate. Von Trier posits Justine’s tumbling psychological persona as a bridge to contemplating collective destruction, or more specifically the way doubt and guilt define both individual decisions and our hollow world beyond the frame.

The first half of Melancholia follows the darkly humorous and tragic consequences of the wedding party itself, a grotesque soiree that gradually degenerates into a free-for-all of resentment and guilt. As Justine and her newly minted husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard)  traverse the (un)friendly salutations of their friends and family, almost nothing goes as planned. Embarrassing speeches by disgruntled family members, night time trysts on the golf course, and a verbal throw down between Justine and her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) define these early moments as small catastrophes foreshadowing the larger ones to come. But despite the level of awkwardness and discomfort permeating through these scenes, there’s a sense of unexplainable solace in Justine’s tortured experience, a tonal approach that comes to fruition later in the film.

Melancholia’s second overture flashes forward, focusing on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives with her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and young son at the expansive villa that provides the location of the disastrous wedding. The immaculate grounds overlooking a lake is prime real estate to watch the end of days, and the group, including a nearly comatose Justine, does just that. Von Trier allows his actors more leeway here, including a great sequence where Justine lays out her emotional manifesto in striking detail to a shocked Claire. In this one moment, Dunst captures her character’s depression with unflinching clarity while anticipating the imminent arrival of Melancholia with a certain strength that hasn’t revealed itself before. Claire on the other hand represents the flip side of this coin, feeling an increasing trepidation and invigoration by the approaching planet.

In this sense, Melancholia is an intricate study in opposites. Von Trier displays these contrasts by juxtaposing dynamic visuals with subtle aspects of performance. The film’s staggering 8-minute opening sequence feels like a photo album referencing the more difficult internal conflicts of the characters themselves. Through this lens, there’s plenty to mine when one is compared to the other in the same striking frame. Finally, in the final moments of Melancholia, there’s even a sense of peace that is no longer personal, but shared between this broken lineage. For a moment Justine appreciates the present through her own sad perspective, stripping away the power of her disease right before the world turns to dust.

Melancholia opens Friday, November 11 at the Landmark Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Cinemas