â€œMelancholia,â€ 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 thatâ€™s about as subtle as that of the Unobtainium in â€œAvatarâ€). I promise Iâ€™m not spoiling anything with that descriptionâ€”the filmâ€™s beautiful opening sequence allows for no uncertainty regarding the fate of the Earth.
Itâ€™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 Pixarâ€™s â€œUpâ€ (an odd comparison, I know), â€œMelancholiaâ€ opens with an eight-minute sequence of beautifully composed images, accompanied by a wonderful, heart-wrenching score. Also like â€œUp,â€ 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 flawlesslyâ€”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 Claireâ€™s mansion two weeks after Justineâ€™s wedding.
The acting, visuals and music remain wonderful throughout the film, but the writing flounders a bit. Unfortunately, von Trier simply doesnâ€™t have much to say beyond a few cynical meditations on the flaws and misery of humanity.
Comparisons between â€œMelancholiaâ€ and Terrence Malickâ€™s â€œThe Tree of Lifeâ€ are inevitableâ€”theyâ€™re both art films that use striking visuals to document various stages of the Earthâ€™s existence (and both were met with high praise at this yearâ€™s Cannes Film Festival). â€œMelancholiaâ€ is the more accessible of the two films and von Trierâ€™s imagery is arguably more distinctive than Malickâ€™s. â€œThe Tree of Life,â€ however, is the superior film, by far. The scope and meaning of â€œThe Tree of Lifeâ€ far exceed that of â€œMelancholia,â€ and the formerâ€™s visuals serve a greater purpose.
â€œMelancholiaâ€ is more on par with Mike Cahillâ€™s â€œAnother Earth.â€ Neither is a bad film, but both promise something extraordinary and deliver something rather normal. I appreciate that â€œMelancholia,â€ like â€œAnother Earth,â€ 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 itâ€™s silly to condemn a filmÂ for not being as good as â€œThe Tree of Life.â€ As mentioned, the performances are spectacular. In particular, Iâ€™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 SkarsgÃ¥rd also make appearances here and do not disappoint.
â€œMelancholiaâ€ is a film worth seeingâ€”whether for its disaster movie plot, its art film pedigreeÂ or both. I just wish the filmâ€™s overall quality matched the sum of its parts.