Danish filmmaking’s leading provocateur Lars Von Trier returns with Melancholia, which means it’s time for another 2+ hours of depressing cynicism (at least he’s honest about it in the title, I suppose). This time Von Trier’s subject matter is nothing less than the apocalypse and if anything it’s surprising that it took him this long to finally stage the end of the world. Armed with an all-star cast and his patented jump-cut/shaky-cam aesthetic, it’s business as usual for Von Trier, which is a good thing. The only unfortunate aspect of Melancholia is that it’s structured and played out like two very different films presented as companion pieces and unfortunately the first movie is superior to the second one.
Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst as possibly the worst bride at the most uncomfortable wedding in the history of cinema. She arrives late to her own party and over the course of the reception manages to get into a fight with her mother, infuriate the wedding planners, commit infidelity, tell off her boss, and quit her job. That’s a pretty packed schedule of self-destruction that Von Trier plays as bitter dark comedy. This first chunk of the movie is a joy to watch in a slow-motion trainwreck kind of way. It is filled with amusing supporting turns and cameos from the likes of John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, and Udo Kier. The wedding portion is alive in vibrant in a way that Von Trier’s movies haven’t been in years. Of course, it’s still as dark and twisted as all his work, but in a more enjoyable manner. Think of it as Von Trier’s wedding variation on Dogme movie Festen, only with more laughs and less incest.
The wedding portion of the film ends at about an hour an fifteen minutes at which a different movie stars. The second half focuses on Dunst, her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), and her nephew (Cameron Spurr). Though still distinctly a work of Von Trier, the second half feels like another movie entirely. It’s a claustrophobic, existential tragedy about the three characters getting together to watch the planet Melancholia (subtle symbolism, wouldn’t you say?) either passing by or crashing into earth. Scientists aren’t sure what will happen, but given that the director’s movies don’t tend to have happy endings, you can probably guess how it turns out. This second half of Melancholia is a much more languished affair, with Dunst’s character too depressed to even feed herself and plenty of longwinded discussions about the impossibility of happiness and the inevitability of the apocalypse. It’s still compelling, just nowhere near as fresh and entertaining as the first half.
This is a tough film to review because it’s comprised of two very different movies awkwardly crammed together. Had the film been purely about the wedding, I’d say it’s the best thing Von Trier has done in years. But it’s not and the apocalyptic second half is a bit of a letdown. The director has done that sort of depressed existential rambling many times before and it feels like he’s merely going through his old motions for lack of a better ending. Average Von Trier is still better than most filmmakers at their peak, but the acidic black comedy of the first half worked so well that I wish he’d been able to keep it going for the full running time. Still, the performances are rock solid from top to bottom, particularly Dunst who has never been given a role this challenging before and displays a remarkable emotional range while fearlessly portraying a deeply disturbed and unlikable young woman.
Though inconsistent, the culminative impact of the movie is still quite intense and powerful. The way Von Trier stages his inevitable apocalypse is extraordinary, yet small. There are no cities crumbling or heroic acts. Just a desperate woman staring down the bright light that will end her existence and that’s far more resonant and memorable than any of the $100 million apocalypses that Roland Emmerich has staged over his interminable career.
The incredible performances from the entire cast (especially Dunst), the wonderful acidic black comedy of the wedding sequence, and Lars Von Trier's general fearlessness as a filmmaker.
The fact that Melancholia is actually two different movies played back to back and the second movie isn't nearly as strong as the first one.