Kirsten Dunst Shines as Earth Crumbles in Lars von Trier's Melancholia

Categories: Film and TV

Lars von Trier's Melancholia - about how two sisters deal with the approaching destruction of Earth - comes to Harkins Camelview this Friday, Dec. 2.

Lars von Trier is not for everyone. You have only to watch von Trier's violently quirky short film Occupations -- featuring von Trier brutally murdering the man talking in the movie theater next to him -- to see that he's wildly passionate about his work, and yeah, a little bit uninhibited. 

The notoriously outspoken director, whose latest film, Melancholia, comes to Harkins Camelview this Friday, was declared "persona non grata" at this year's Cannes Film Festival following comments he made about understanding Hitler

 Far from a French formality, this official condemnation banned von Trier from coming within 100 meters of the festival.

Luckily for audiences, von Trier's latest masterpiece was welcomed (as we so often want to have our cake and not have to put up with the artist, too), garnering both critical praise and a Best Actress Award for star Kirsten Dunst.

Why you should see this film in theaters - and more about Dunst's award-winning performance - after the jump.

Like the infamous Marquis de Sade novel from which Dunst's Justine gets her name, Melancholia revolves around two sisters (the elder, Claire, is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, von Trier's muse apparent). In Part One, we meet the blushing bride Justine on her wedding day. Justine is a copy writer for an advertising firm, through which she met husband Michael (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard, in a memorably fragile turn). Best Man Jack (Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander's real-life father) is also Justine's greedy boss, who attends the wedding with one final demand: a tagline.

As we follow Justine through the long night, and the expensively mounted wedding reception continues to swirl around her, we begin to see the cracks in the facade of lively perfection. This is where Dunst really shines: She is so captivating in her listless, layered melancholy. At the same time you desperately want to understand her, she's also driving you - and the other characters - out of your mind. 

In one of Dunst's best scenes, Justine closes herself in a room with shelves filled with art books (as we first imagine, looking for inspiration for that one last tagline). She grabs at the books in a frenzy, opening them to new paintings and setting them up against each other on an open shelf. For Justine, it's a furious search for meaning: Like von Trier himself, Justine is trying to find some new message or truth in this frantic juxtaposition of images.

Stargazing begins casually at the wedding reception.

​To really understand Justine, of course, you need to see Part 2. Centered on Claire and her family (son Leo and husband John, played by Kiefer Sutherland), the second half of the film brings the science fiction into this drama. Rapidly approaching Earth is the much larger planet Melancholia, a great, threatening blue orb in the sky. 

No spoiler alerts here: von Trier purposefully shows the tragic ending of the film in its first five minutes. And yet, the simple treatment of the impending disaster makes it terrifying to experience. There are moments when Claire stares up at the sky that are easily as powerful as any horror film.

The camera captures the moon, left, before panning to the second, much more frightening light in the sky, allowing us to experience the perspective of Claire.

​Director von Trier accomplishes this feeling largely through the juxtaposition of polar opposite filming techniques and sound. While the film opens with a series of breathtaking tableaus of movement reminiscent of an Alexander McQueen fashion show, intercut with the cold images of Earth being destroyed, and all set to the recurring theme of Richard Wagner's Prelude to the tragic opera Tristan und Isolde, most of it is less stylized and more Dogme 95. Von Trier was one of the founders of this 1995 movement, which demands a handheld camera and no addition of sound that does not occur naturally in the scene (of course, another rule is that the director can't be credited, and if you're going to have your name as big as the film title then you might as well go ahead and use some special effects and a soundtrack while you're at it).

Like many great artists in their time - and the third season of Lost - von Trier is both beloved and reviled. But it's the same unflinching, unedited worldview of the banished von Trier that can produce the beauty of Melancholia - and with its stunning visuals, this is definitely a film to see in theaters. Just don't forget not to talk or text; you never know when von Trier might be sitting next to you.

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