Film review: “Melancholia” by Lars von Trier

Kirsten Dunst stars in “Melancholia,” on DVD and Blu-ray today.

“Melancholia,” the latest film from Danish director (and semi-professional provocateur) Lars von Trier, is the latest addition to a steadily growing, intriguing little genre: the art house sci-fi film. Here von Trier infuses an apocalyptic story with art film sensibilities to very good, if not great, effect.

The film tells the story of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their lives leading up to the collision of the Earth with Melancholia, an enormous, rapidly approaching planet (with a name that’s about as subtle as that of the Unobtainium in “Avatar”). I promise I’m not spoiling anything with that description””the film’s beautiful opening sequence allows for no uncertainty regarding the fate of the Earth.

It’s this opening sequence that sets such a high bar for the rest of the film, a bar that is not again reached. Similar to Pixar’s “Up” (an odd comparison, I know), “Melancholia” opens with an eight-minute sequence of beautifully composed images, accompanied by a wonderful, heart-wrenching score. Also like “Up,” however, the storytelling that follows this sequence is comparatively banal.

After the eight minute mark, the first half of the film focuses heavily on Justine and her increasingly disastrous wedding party. Justine is, well, melancholy, a mood that Dunst (a largely inconsistent actress) captures flawlessly””this is among her best work to-date. Gainsbourg is similarly fantastic as Claire, who is at the forefront of the second half of the film, which takes place at Claire’s mansion two weeks after Justine’s wedding.

The acting, visuals and music remain wonderful throughout the film, but the writing flounders a bit. Unfortunately, von Trier simply doesn’t have much to say beyond a few cynical meditations on the flaws and misery of humanity.

Comparisons between “Melancholia” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” are inevitable””they’re both art films that use striking visuals to document various stages of the Earth’s existence (and both were met with high praise at this year’s Cannes Film Festival). “Melancholia” is the more accessible of the two films and von Trier’s imagery is arguably more distinctive than Malick’s. “The Tree of Life,” however, is the superior film, by far. The scope and meaning of “The Tree of Life” far exceed that of “Melancholia,” and the former’s visuals serve a greater purpose.

“Melancholia” is more on par with Mike Cahill’s “Another Earth.” Neither is a bad film, but both promise something extraordinary and deliver something rather normal. I appreciate that “Melancholia,” like “Another Earth,” remains grounded in the real world despite the presence of the supernatural. I would just prefer that these explorations of the real world were a bit more compelling.

These are all relatively minor complaints, however, and I admit that it’s silly to condemn a film for not being as good as “The Tree of Life.” As mentioned, the performances are spectacular. In particular, I’m very glad to have Charlotte Gainsbourg on my radar and I hope Kirsten Dunst can maintain this level of skill. I should also note that the wonderful Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, and Stellan Skarsgà¥rd also make appearances here and do not disappoint.

“Melancholia” is a film worth seeing””whether for its disaster movie plot, its art film pedigree or both. I just wish the film’s overall quality matched the sum of its parts.

Grade: B+