November 24, 2011

MOVIES: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

OK, I know that some people are, shall we say, rather hostile to Lars von Trier these days, but Melancholia is, by a long shot, his finest work. It's the most gentle, delicate, humane movie he's ever made. Who would have thought that the frackin' apocalypse would bring out his softer side?

The movie is set at the large country estate of Claire and John (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland), and begins at the wedding reception of Claire's sister, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who won the best actress award at Cannes for this performance) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). As the evening goes on, it becomes clear that Justine suffers from some sort of emotional disorder, and is struggling to get through the reception without giving in to her gloomy side.

During that long night, Justine spots an unfamiliar red star that turns out not to be a star at all, but the planet Melancholia, which is headed straight towards us. The second half of the movie takes place some weeks or months after the reception, when Melancholia's arrival is only days away; scientists are divided as to whether it will collide with Earth or narrowly miss.

(It would seem to me that any miss that narrow would be essentially indistinguishable from a collision in terms of the destruction that would be caused, but like Another Earth earlier this year, Melancholia is less concerned with the scientific impact of its newly discovered world than with the emotional impact.)

Performances are superb all the way around, and Dunst really is remarkable here, playing all the subtle shades of Justine's unstable emotions. There are lovely small performances from John Hurt as the sisters' randy father, Charlotte Rampling as their acerbic mother, and Udo Kier as an increasingly frazzled wedding planner.

The final moments of the movie, as the sisters wait for the end, in whatever form it may arrive, are gorgeous. It is a strangely joyful and ecstatic ending, a magical climax to a deeply moving film.

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