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Written and Directed by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard

For all his odd behaviour and shit-disturbing, Lars von Trier is an undeniably talented man, a genius in his field. Since his very first release, 1984’s The Element of Crime, von Trier’s films have routinely done two things: upset people and  gotten heaped with critical acclaim. This year’s Melancholia feels toothless compared to the way von Trier regularly lobs his films into festivals like a grenade.

Melancholia opens with a beautiful prelude, set to the music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and comprised entirely of highly-stylized slow motion shots, reminiscent of the methods used in Antichrist (2009). In this prelude von Trier includes visual references to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Stalker (1979) which feel very forced, but in general this section of the film feels like a short film that tells the story of Melancholia more effectively than the whole of the rest of the film. We are shown Earth being destroyed in a collision with a planet named Melancholia, an overly-symbolic name nearly as clunky as Avatar‘s (2009) “unobtainium.”  Von Trier is giving away the ending; the characters die in the end.

The next section of the film, titled “Justine” is mostly muddled, unspecific and lifeless, but it is exceedingly successful in one way. Von Trier notoriously struggles with innumerable emotional problems, and if there has ever been a case for not separating the artist from his art, Lars von Trier is that case. His films frequently feel like self-therapy and here he seems to want to explore the isolation felt by someone suffering from a severe case of depression. We follow Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding night, as she is surrounded and celebrated by her closest loved ones. As a viewer, I got the strange sense that while everyone in the room knew Justine, Justine had never met any of them. All of the characters felt flat, false as though this were a sort of nightmare. I think the characters were intended by von Trier to feel this way, in an effort to express the detachment symptomatic of severe depression. Justine is clearly in the throes of depression and even on the night of her wedding, which should be the happiest of her life, she seems unable to feel anything towards her father, sister, or even her new husband. I think von Trier is very successful in creating that sense of isolation in his viewer, and his casting of Dunst in the role of Justine only helps to create that sense of total emotional detachment. She is not a great actress but her emotional presence here is perfect.

The rest of Melancholia is about Dunst, incapacitated with depression, living with her sister Clair (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brilliant but insensitive husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) as they all wait with uncertainty to see if Melancholia will pass Earth by. It is through this second part of the film that Melancholia falls apart, as it feels very much as though von Trier lost interest in whatever point he was initially trying to make. None of the characters relate to each other and, while it worked in the first section of the film, in the second half it only succeeds in excluding the viewer from the emotional spectrum in the lives of these characters.

Melancholia feels like an experiment for von Trier. I suspect he wanted to try his hand at science fiction but was unable to sever his ties with humanity long enough to construct a truly fictional world. I also suspect he wished to express some new-found optimism or hope and ended up feeling too far outside his comfort zone and ended up with a film that feels disingenuous. Every element of this film feels like an experiment, and while it’s not totally failed, Melancholia doesn’t burn with the same sort of conviction as many of von Trier’s other films.