Winner - Best Actress 2011 Cannes Film Festival (Kirsten Dunst)
Stunningly directed, beautifully shot and superbly written, this is a mesmerising and powerfully moving end-of-the-world drama with a glorious soundtrack and a career-best performance from Kirsten Dunst. It’s also one of the best films of the year.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier, Melancholia brilliantly combines the disastrous family-gathering drama (typified by the Dogme movement’s early hit Celebration) with the Armageddon-style sci-fi apocalypse genre. Split into two halves named after the two main characters, the film begins with manic depressive, self-destructive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) arriving late to her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), thereby annoying her long-suffering sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who have staged the wedding at great expense at their country estate.
When the wedding goes horribly wrong, the film shifts into its second half, with Justine, Claire, John and their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr) sitting around the now empty mansion watching the giant planet Melancholia’s advance towards Earth, which scientists have calculated to be on a not-quite-collision course. However, while Claire panics and John tries to rationalise the planet’s progress for Leo, Justine becomes convinced that the world is going to end.
Kirsten Dunst deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as Justine and she’s utterly superb, creating a complex and fascinating character who, in common with many of von Trier’s heroines, finds a sort of transcendent peace in the face of impending apocalypse. Gainsbourg (who underwent a similar ordeal in von Trier’s Antichrist) is equally good as Claire and there’s terrific support from a superb cast that includes Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård (as Justine’s boss), Udo Kier (as a prissy wedding planner) and John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as the sisters’ rabidly dysfunctional parents.
Lars von Trier is hardly the world’s subtlest director and he goes all-out here, opening the film with an extraordinary tableaux of beautiful, operatically-scored stills that both foreshadow the action and create a powerful atmosphere. Similarly, the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, with several images recalling classic paintings, while the sound design is simply sensational, heightened by the inspired use of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
The provocative script is clearly drawn from von Trier’s own experiences of depression, giving the film a strongly personal feel. However, perhaps the most interesting thing about Melancholia is that, in a bizarre way, it actually functions as a potential cure for melancholia, in that it delivers the cathartic release to end all cathartic releases.
– Matthew Turner, ViewLondon