AFI FEST 2011: Melancholia
My Flickchart Ranking: #52
My first foray into the filmography of Lars von Trier happened the other night at AFI Fest 2011 Presented by Audi with the film Melancholia. Admittedly it was tough going into this screening without some degree of expectation given all the buzz surrounding the film. Pretty much everything I read up until the screening itself called this film the best of the year. As the the first few moments rolled by, I was mentally prepared to be disappointed. All you need to do is look at my ranking of the film above to see that that wasn’t the case.
Melancholia is the story of Justine, a depressed young woman who has found herself married to Michael (played effectively by Alexander Skarsgård). Try as she might, she can’t bring herself to celebrate with her family and makes multiple attempts to escape the festivities, each time angering a different member of the family. As she traipses around the lovely estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, 21 Grams), she notices an odd star up in the sky. As the film progresses we find out that the star is actually a planet and that it’s on a collision-course with Earth. Naturally, this leads to a lot of drama.
All kidding aside, what makes this film work is that it’s first and foremost a drama. By the time the approaching planet takes over the plot, we’re already grounded in most of the characters and their struggles with the increasingly depressed Justine. Claire’s husband John, played with by Keifer Sutherland, tries numerous times to get through to her and fails. Even Claire tries to snap her sister out of it, but to no avail. All of this happens pretty early on in the film and by the end of the first act we’re drawn into this family. Doesn’t hurt, though, that the world is on the verge of ending.
Props go to Kirsten Dunst, who pulls off an amazing performance as Justine. She plays the depression angle effectively, never letting it get too over-the-top or goofy. There were moments where I simply ached to see her so listless and unable to cope with anything. Everyone else is at the top of their game here as well, providing the perfect foil for our melancholic heroine. Skarsgard, who I’ve mostly seen in True Blood plays a bit of a goof and he’s dang effective at it. His bumbling speech at the wedding reception is genuine and heartfelt. I had to remind myself a few times that he was the same guy pining after Sookie Stackhouse week after week.
Is the film for everyone? No. There’s a lot of parallels in style and substance to Malick’s The Tree of Life. I have a feeling that people will be just as divided about the film, with precious few taking the “it’s just alright” approach. It’s either going to be loved or hated. The sci-fi portion of the film plays primarily in the second half of the film, so if you are expecting a more prevalent “end of the world” tale, this isn’t your film. On the flip side, the end of the film is perhaps the best I’ve seen things play out in this genre.
So yeah, no disappointment here.