Cannes 2011 Review – Melancholia

Note: While the Cannes Film Festival has come to an end, our coverage has not. We still have a few reviews in store for you, and over the coming days we will try to pick up the slack.

As Lars von Trier's depression opus came to an end, as planet Melancholia crashed into Earth, I couldn't help but think of R.E.M.'s "It's the end of the world as we know it." An upbeat, almost happy song, which perfectly complemented my state of happiness that this film was almost over. Melancholia has its merits (for instance, the final moments are beautiful), but it is far too long and has very little to say in that time.

Arguably the best part of the film is the first ten minutes, as von Trier presents a series of tableaux, often slowed down to almost a series of HDR stills, accompanied by doom-spelling Wagner. The prologue ends with the destruction of Earth, as another planet (named Melancholia, as we later learn) collides with it. There is no real point to this sequence, but at least it looks mouthwatering.

We then skip back in time to the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) in the castle-turned-hotel of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Claire has planned Justine's wedding party to the minute, and Justine arriving hours late after a rather funny problem with their limo immediately puts the two sisters at odds. Soon after the party starts, Justine falls into a state of depression (or melancholia), and is absent from the party for large periods of time (to pee on the adjoining golf course, for instance; flashes of Babel here). During the time she actually spends at the party, she has to deal with her philandering father (John Hurt), her cynical mother (Charlotte Rampling), and her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) who actually expects her to do some work on her wedding day. Justine's mood swings ensure the party ends in a catastrophe, with her being fired, and even her new husband leaving her.

Fast forward a few weeks. Justine arrives at her sister's again, in a near catatonic state, and Claire is worried about her sister. John is excited, but not so much for the arrival of Justine as for the arrival of Melancholia, a planet that has been hiding behind the sun. It comes ever closer to Earth, but not to worry, he assures us, it will miss Earth and fly by. Of course it won't, and as it becomes apparent the two planets are on a collision course, the mental state of the two sisters changes. While Claire descends slowly into total panic, Justine regains her calm and starts to make sense again. Until the inevitable end.

Lars von Trier is certainly not a cheerful man (and we've all seen how his attempt to be funny ended at his press conference), but compared to most of his other works, and contrary to what the director himself said, Melancholia starts almost upbeat. There is humor in the first part, especially in the bickering between the estranged parents of the bride (Hurt and Rampling excel here). As with his last film, Antichrist, it is all impeccably filmed. However, it never becomes quite clear what the Danish enfant terrible wants to say. Is he channeling his own supposed depression here? Does it make some poignant statement about fear of death or fatalism? There are a few factors that are so distracting or just downright baffling, that it is hard to really philosophize about what the point of the film was. As the wedding party scene drew to a close, I checked my watch, and to my astonishment noticed that more than an hour of the film had passed. One could see that as a sign that it was so good that time flew by, but let me assure you, it's not. This scene, which basically boils down to Dunst being bipolar for an hour, could have easily been cut to twenty minutes. The subplot with the older Skarsgård went nowhere, and made no sense. Rampling was an interesting representation of levelheadedness, standing in for the audience perhaps, but just like her husband she suddenly left the stage. The whole scene is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, but it doesn't even come close to that film by von Trier's countryman.

The second half, with the impending interplanetary collision, is slightly better, but requires a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief. A celestial entity coming this close would surely have a big effect on our planet, but not in von Trier's universe. The horses go quiet, but otherwise it is just a big ominous circle in the sky, ever growing. Man's fear of death versus fatalism becomes the main theme here, and it seems the director favors the latter. The roles of the sisters reverse, and Justine becomes the one to take charge, trying to talk Claire out of her downward-spiralling panic.

Kirsten Dunst won the Cannes Best Actress award for her role, and while she would not be my personal choice, she is excellent in portraying the mood swings of her character. Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire is given less to work with as a control freak who loses control, but makes the best of what is given to her. Other roles are forgettable, although Hurt and Rampling provide some good laughs, and especially the latter is in form as the icy cold mother. But occasionally superb acting and stellar technicals cannot hide the fact that von Trier has made a bit of an empty vessel. It appears to be heady, but it leaves you scratching your head, or shaking it in disbelief, as you wonder if the Dane has just played a joke on all of us.