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Melancholia: A dish best served cold

Shane Steinberg | Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Self-proclaimed “best director in the world” Lars von Trier has a way of being larger than his films. “Larger” in the sense that despite enormous hype, film festival awards and controversial subject matters, his films always tend to take a backseat to his antics.

His latest film, “Melancholia,” is his latest casualty. It had a successful showing at the Cannes Film Festival, was one of the best-reviewed films of 2011, and had a relatively good box office performance. Despite von Trier’s highly publicized, unsavory remarks at the post-screening interview at Cannes, which prompted his indefinite ban from the festival, “Melancholia” stands on its own.

“Melancholia” tells the story of a family’s last days as they struggle through their strained relationships while watching a strange planet inch closer to colliding with Earth. Kirsten Dunst (whose performance won her the Best Actress award at Cannes last spring) plays Justine, a bride-to-be who goes about her wedding day as if it were a sentencing.

Charlotte Gainsbourg shows once again why von Trier considers her his go-to actress, with a gut-wrenching performance as Justine’s sister. She can’t keep from thinking that the planet, which her scientist husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) insists won’t hit Earth, will in fact do so.

By highlighting the two sisters, Justine with her almost sadistic don’t-care attitude, and Claire (Gainsbourg) whose worrying reflects our fear of the fleetingness of life, von Trier paints a claustrophobic view of what it looks like at the end of the world. He draws on our desire to reassure ourselves in the face of inevitability and hang on for dear life much better than other directors have in the recent bevy of apocalypse films. In doing so, he nearly creates a movie that tugs at the strings, if only it were injected with more of a story and more likable characters.

Instead, “Melancholia” suffers from the classic case of style over substance. As the trailers for this film were quick to highlight, “Melancholia” is full of show-stopping shots that would make even Terrence Malick and the team behind “Tree of Life” awestruck. Yes, the cinematography here somehow managed to do the impossible and be better than “Tree of Life’s.”

However, it also shows that once again von Trier, whose earlier works include “Antichrist,” “Dogville” and “Dancer in the Dark,” crafts highly stylized yet highly polarizing films that some will love and some will hate — mainly for their stories, or lack thereof.

While “Melancholia” is one of those classic “love it or hate it” films, it’s still a film that begs to be watched. Von Trier is a rare talent who somehow gets raw emotion in its rawest form. He serves it cold in the form of visually striking and perplexing films. In that way, “Melancholia” is a dish best served cold — just don’t be surprised if you don’t like it once you take a bite.