In both its nihilistic themes and art-house attributes that border on the satirical, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia serves as a very clear successor to his controversial previous effort, 2009’s Antichrist. Both films begin with a shamelessly pretentious but inescapably beautiful opening prologue that drips with mesmerising slow-motion photography and heart-rending classical overtures. From there, however, von Trier leads us down a very long and arduous path of cheerless monotony, one that ends where the film begins, with the destruction of every living thing on the face of the Earth. Never did I think that the end of the world could be so tedious and boring, but the provocative Dane proved me well and truly wrong.
Melancholia is split into two chapters, each named for the sister from whose perspective that section is told. The first act is named after Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and is set at her wedding reception; a less than successful affair dampened not only by bickering relatives, but also by Justine clear lack of enthusiasm for her husband. Although far too long, there is some pretty entertaining acerbic humour in this chapter, courtesy of Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s bitter old mother.
But the film comes to grinding halt as it ticks over into its second half, where it is now told from the perspective of Justine’s older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the days after the wedding Justine has fallen into a deep depression and is living in the stately home of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). At the same time, a new planet named Melancholia has appeared in the sky, and although scientists remain confident no one is in danger, Claire becomes convinced that it’s on a collision course with Earth.
There is no doubt that Melancholia is at times a visually beautiful film, but it possesses a crippling lack of emotion. By showing the destruction of Earth first, von Trier removes not just tension, but also the inclination to connect with people that, quite frankly, aren’t that interesting or likable to begin with. The handheld camera completely fails to bring us closer to the characters, while the constant blurring and refocusing – although no doubt intentional – comes across as amateurish and annoying. The depressive greys, blues and greens that dominate the screen in the second half only greaten the distance between the audience and everything else that is going on.
The performances are serviceable but generally unremarkable; each actor seems to be playing a slight variation of a character we’ve seen them play before. Kiefer Sutherland is impatient and terse, while John Hurt plays the lovable good humoured old man. Charlotte Gainsbourg lapses into hysteria without the same potent effect it had in Antichrist, although she definitely out-acts Kirsten Dunst.
Watching people struggle when the ending is already preordained is neither interesting nor pleasant. Melancholia is so dull, flat and devoid of feeling that not even the awe-inspiring end of the world sequence registers the slightest flickering of emotion, aside from pleasure that this god-awful film is finally over.
Tom Clift is a web-based film journalist from Melbourne, Australia. Visit his website here: http://reviewsbytom.blogspot.com.
You can read all of Tom Clift’s coverage of MIFF 2011 here.