Melancholia (2011)

(On Cable TV, October 2012) I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Melancholia, but I expected it to be interesting.  “Dogme 95” director Lars von Trier isn’t usually associated with science-fiction or special effects, so seeing him handle a spectacular end-of-the-world disaster film had its own particular fascination.  There’s little in Melancholia that’s conventional, of course: it opens with a series of exquisitely photographed slow-motion portraits expressing the film that will follow.  Then we’re boldly thrown into an hour-long dramatic first section that seldom even acknowledges the ultimate science-fictional aims of the film.  This first hour is all about a young woman getting married and causing/suffering the worst day of her life.  The key to Melancholia is the idea that depressed people cope well with apocalyptic situations.  After that, the dramatic dynamics of second half of the film, describing in an intimate setting the reaction to impending disaster, makes perfect sense: The depressive is unaffected, the rational shatters under stress, the normal retreats into shock and the innocent isn’t aware of what’s going on.  It may be a frustratingly slow film, but it’s more than occasionally beautiful in its own way, and it forces actors such as Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland to show some real acting capabilities. (Particularly Dunst, too-often dismissed in more superficial roles.)  For SF fans, it’s fascinating to see how carefully von Trier limits his scope: isolated location, four characters, scientific jargon that acknowledges the hard-science behind the scenario while using it for more fanciful purposes.  It’s also a revealing take on material that would be treated far differently in a pure-genre film.  Best seen on a small screen with plenty of distractions on-hand (it is a rather slow-paced film, and often skips over connective material), Melancholia nonetheless has its own languid appeal, a cozy catastrophe brought to the screen and an intimate exploration of a subject that, handled more conventionally, would seem downright ordinary.

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