by Jef Burnham
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment.
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From the visually arresting overture to the film’s staggering final moments, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia stands, in my mind, as the single greatest narrative film of 2011. Von Trier, known for consistently delivering the most emotionally-exhausting of films, imbues this exploration of (what else?) melancholia with just the right amount of levity and spectacle to make this his most widely accessible film by far. With a stellar cast and Von Trier’s visual prowess at its peak, Melancholia is certainly nothing short of a masterpiece.
The film follows sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), for each of whom one half of the film is arbitrarily (and somewhat misleadingly) named, as they attempt to cope with melancholia on both personal and galactic levels. Justine, whose wedding constitutes the first half of the film, suffers from crippling depression, the extent of which only becomes apparent in the latter half of the film as the planet Melancholia hurtles toward the Earth. Justine’s wedding serves to establish the dynamic of the sisters’ family through a lengthy series of brief yet subtextually rich interactions between the guests. Having thus developed the characters over the course of Justine’s “happy day,” Von Trier places these characters in a polar opposite situation, one of danger and despair. That this situation involves a fictional, yet totally plausible and apparently scientifically accurate, galactic catastrophe only makes the film that much more interesting and visually engaging. The film boasts some spectacular visual effects in this regard.
Kirsten Dunst took home the award for Best Actress at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, delivering the standout performance of her career to date. Gainsbourg too, a Von Trier veteran (of Antichrist), is spectacular in her own right. And Von Trier also garners a phenomenal performance from Kiefer Sutherland as Claire’s husband, John, an amateur astronomer who swears that Melancholia will pass by Earth. Alexander Skarsgård, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and Brady Corbet also appear in the first half of the film.
If I were to identify ANY problems with the film, I would say that the dividing of the film into the two chapters titled “Justine” and “Claire” undercuts the importance of the second half of the film to our understanding of Justine’s character. Additionally, Von Trier’s comments at Melancholia’s Cannes Premiere tarnished the film’s reputation before it was released to wide audience, which constitutes a cinematic tragedy. I would advise anyone reticent to view the film based on Von Trier’s comments to forget whatever you may have heard him say at Cannes, in poor taste or otherwise, because Melancholia should not be missed.
The special features on the Magnolia home release of Melancholia include:
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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