Some of you may recall the name Lars von Trier. It was he who merely three years ago directed the worst film of 2009, Antichrist, an abhorrent experience best forgotten. This year, he returns with something completely different, a strange and unusual film that encompasses a marriage falling apart on the same day as the wedding as well as the end of the world. You would think that material like this would make for a fascinating film, but unfortunately that doesn’t end up being the case.
Explaining the plot to the film is a little difficult, but I’ll do my best. It’s split into two halves, the first of which concentrates on Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at their wedding reception. All of their friends and family are there including Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), her father (John Hurt), mother (Charlotte Rampling), boss (Stellan Skarsgard), as well as Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Throughout the reception, we slowly see that something is not quite right with Justine. She appears to go through a quiet, emotional breakdown which continually disrupts the party. Eventually it comes to seem like she regrets her decision to get married.
The second half of the film focuses on Claire and John. After Justine’s strange breakdown, she comes to live with her sister. Meanwhile, John, an astronomer/scientist of sorts, is studying a planet that has been hiding behind the sun and is now set to pass by Earth. Claire worries that the planet, known as Melancholia, will strike Earth, but John continues to assure her that it won’t. The rest of the film deals with them getting ready to witness the planet’s passing.
The main reason that the plot is a little difficult to summarize is because, quite simply, there wasn’t really any plot to the film. Of course, this is not always a bad thing, but in order for a film not to have any plot, it has to have something else to compensate for it, something that will keep the audience engaged for the runtime of the film, but Von Trier never gets around to presenting anything that begins to make up for it.
This detrimental lack of plot also leads to another serious problem for the film. Since there’s nothing there to engage the audience, the pacing begins to suffer quite heavily as we wait for something interesting to happen or for the characters to develop further, which is something else that we end up waiting a long time for, but to no avail.
It was a rather strange decision to break the film up into two halves as the two don’t really have much to do with each other, other than sharing a few of the same characters. Just when we’re supposed to be engaged with Dunst’s character, she is suddenly sidelined in favor of her sister and her sister’s husband. Their characters are not particularly interesting either because all they seem interested in is Melancholia, the planet that is supposed to pass by Earth.
Melancholia was shown at Cannes last year where Kirsten Dunst took home Best Actress, which was an odd choice since her character doesn’t really do very much throughout the film except for a bit of moping followed by a small breakdown. It’s not a bad performance though as it gets the job done, but it’s not one that I would go waving awards at. Then again, it was also at Cannes where Gainsbourgh ended up getting Best Actress for her terrible performance in Antichrist. At least this jury did a little better.
Aside from Dunst, we get a very strange performance from Kiefer Sutherland as Claire’s husband. His character seems to be mad throughout the entire movie, first at his ex-wife and Justine at the wedding reception, then at Justine again when she comes to live with him and Claire. There are also small, but interesting, turns from excellent actors John Hurt and Stellan Skarsgard. They only get a small handful of scenes, but they’re always a delight to see.
The best part of Melancholia occurs in the first few minutes of the film. We are treated to some gorgeous imagery of things that are to come at the end of the film, some of which spoils the ending, so it’s doubtful Von Trier meant for it to be a surprise. If he had been able to incorporate more of this dream-like imagery into the film, along with a more engaging plot (or any plot at all), Von Trier could have had a far more interesting film on his hands. With the topics presented in both halves of the film, it seemed like it would be hard not to at least have a semi-interesting story, but since he decided not to develop those topics very far, it’s not that big of a surprise that the film suffers for it. In the end, perhaps the nicest compliment that can be paid to Von Trier’s latest film is that it is much, much better than his last.
Taking a look at the technical aspects of the Blu-Ray, the film is presented in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. The picture is good for the most part, though it looks a little duller than most Blu-Rays. The colors of the film are pretty dark in the first place, but for some reason the picture is not quite as sharp as it should be, which is a shame given that the imagery is amazing. The audio on the other hand is crisp and clear, allowing the dialogue and score to be heard clearly throughout the film.
The film comes with the following special features:
- About Melancholia
- The Universe
- The Visual Style
- Visual Effects
- HDNet: A Look at Melancholia
- Theatrical Trailers
Some of these are actually very interesting featurettes that go in-depth into the making of the film. “About Melancholia” features interviews with Von Trier and the cast talking about the various characters in the film and what they thought about them. It offers an interesting look as to how those involved in the film interpreted the characters and what the film was about. “Visual Effects” is pretty much what it sounds like. It offers a look at the various special effects used in the film. It shows how different shots were composited to make the beautiful imagery including the scene of the worlds colliding and the different shots of Melancholia approaching Earth.
“The Visual Style” offers an interesting interview with the Director of Photography, Manuel Alberto Claro, who tells us of the handheld camera technique and how Von Trier didn’t want him to refine his method between takes. “The Universe” is simply a short featurette featuring an interview with an astrophysicist about the possibility of a planet colliding with Earth and how the effects of it in the film are based on actual science.
Although the film wasn’t good, it’s good to see that the special features on the disk explore the making of it pretty well. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend that you run out and purchase this Blu-Ray as the film just doesn’t stand up to some of the great things that have been said about it (The National Society of Film Critics even went so far as to name it the best film of the year). It’s certainly a beautiful film to look at, but there just isn’t much more here than that.