Denmark Sweden France Germany (135 mi) 2011 'Scope d: Lars von Trier
Don’t miss the opening ten minutes, a wordless slow-mo montage set to the Prelude orchestral music of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, seen in its entirety here: Melancholia Prologue on YouTube (7:46), as it’s filled with the most dramatic shots of the film, all of which set the apocalyptic tone of gloom and doom which dominate this film, as an approaching star named Melancholia is veering toward the earth’s orbit, but scientists expect it to pass by without interference or harm. Shot in ‘Scope with a mix of digital and 35 mm imagery by Manuel Alberto Claro, most all of it taking place at a single location, a mammoth estate in Västra Götaland County in Sweden that resembles the grounds of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961), a sign of the upper echelons of the aristocracy. After an opening Prologue, the film is divided in two parts, each representing the state of mind of two sisters, Kristen Dunst as Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire. Justine arrives on the scene as the bride in her full wedding regalia with the groom in tow, both in the throes of love as they experience a comically absurd sequence where it’s near impossible for the driver to park a stretch limo. This moment of levity is interrupted by the severity expressed from her late arrival where she’s apparently missed the first several hours of the world’s most expensive and elaborately planned wedding, by Udo Kier of course as the wedding planner, who after awhile refuses to even look at the bride as she’s completely ruined his wedding. Justine can’t seem to focus and continually wanders off, throwing the timing off, forcing guests to continually wait, where Claire and her husband John, Kiefer Sutherland, who’s paying for it all, grow more irate by the minute, as they feel embarrassed by the apparent indifference of the bride. Nonetheless, despite Claire’s continual interference, supposedly reminding her sister of her social obligations, Justine just never gets the hang of it, and her more casual air doesn’t match the growing mood of annoyance and frazzled nerves, especially from Justine’s unhappily separated parents, the equally carefree John Hurt dangling two women named Betty on his arm, and the contemptuous view of her domineering mother, Charlotte Rampling, who hates weddings in general and is not afraid to express her misanthropic views.
The man in the middle of this apparent wedding from hell is Alexander Skarsgård as Michael, the groom, a perfectly charming and innocent young man who’s thrilled at the idea of being married to Justine, though, as the night goes on, he learns he really doesn’t know her at all. When the father of the groom, Stellan Skarsgård, makes a perfectly odious speech about his preference between his son’s happiness and his own business success, he quite naturally chooses the success of his business, which simply stakes his claim as the biggest egoist in the room. There’s plenty of behind the scenes nastiness, especially when Justine has had enough and simply tells off the father-in-law that he’s an imbecile whose arrogance is despicable, where he and his family, again with the groom in tow, quickly exit the premises. One guesses this may all blow over by the morning, but it doesn’t, as the sisters, for days, weeks, or even months afterwards, continue to inhabit the immense grounds, which is located on a golf course. Never once throughout this ordeal is anyone ever seen actually playing golf at this ultra exclusive country estate. Only afterwards is there a suggestion that Justine suffers from depression, which really isn’t remotely suggested during the wedding party itself, where instead the idea of a perfect day where she's supposed to be happy is literally forced upon her, leaving her bewildered and in a state of confusion and mixed emotions, where in the aftermath she simply lies around unable to get out of bed. Sometime later, as the film switches to the other sister, with the mysterious planet moving ever closer, Claire is openly suspicious about the possibilities of what could happen when Melancholia passes near the earth. John, however, considers himself something of a science expert, who’s continually looking up at the star in his telescope, sharing the moment with his young son, and can barely contain his enthusiasm at this priceless moment, knowing all scientific experts have predicted the star will simply pass by, allowing an unheard of opportunity for skywatchers.
The mood in the second segment grows more broodingly intense, as Claire becomes more unsettled at the thought of potential doom, despite her husband’s calming speeches to the contrary, she still has her suspicions, made all the more ominous by the abnormal behavior of animals, especially their horses that won’t sit still in their stalls, whinnying and remaining restlessly agitated throughout the day and night. While Claire grows more hysterical, especially for the life of her son, it’s Justine that develops a calmly fatalistic attitude, sensing the end is near, claiming she knows life in the universe exists only on earth and it’s about to come to an end where no one will notice its absence. Her ease in accepting impending doom is in stark contrast to her panic ridden sister, where the sisters seem to represent opposite ends of the distressed mood spectrum, but it’s all displayed with heightened melodrama that reeks of excess, especially from Gainsbourg, where the director continues to flood the theater with the neverending sounds of Wagner, a monotonously repetitive theme of gloom that drives the point home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, as we’ve obviously gotten the point, but is that all there is? Is this a one-note drama? All we ever see are the few lives that remain on these massive grounds, where the spacious emptiness is substantial, as all the other people in the world are missing, as no one else is ever seen, as if these are the last humans on earth. There is no radio, television, Internet news, phone calls, no sirens blaring, nothing to connect these life forms to anyone else on earth, and all this is before anything happens. Dunst, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes is good, but nothing special, where the ominous atmospheric mood is substantial, as the director contemplates a scenario where the human race and planet earth are on the verge of collapse from a mysteriously off course star that appears out of nowhere. Obviously anything’s possible, but this is a bewildering climax that is overly hyped and pre-ordained from the opening prologue, so there’s little mounting tension or suspense. Judging from the blasé evidence of life shown in the two or so hours onscreen, there is little sustained human drama that makes this feel in any way memorable.