July 27, 2011




MELANCHOLIA – Watch It At Home – The Title Tells the Tale


Here’s a quick primer in Oscar rules and how studios can get around them.  In order for a film to be Oscar-eligible (other than in a few special categories like Documentary and Foreign Film), it needs a theatrical release in the LA area for at least 7 days before it’s available on any other platform, like VOD or homevideo.  The Academy insists on this because they don’t want to become the Emmys, giving awards to productions that are primarily made for television.  All well and good.  But over the last few years, the distribution model for independent films has changed greatly, and indie studios like Magnolia and IFC, among others, routinely release their films simultaneously in a limited theatrical run and on VOD (maximizing the value of their marketing efforts, among other things).  Technically, films released that way are not eligible for Academy Awards.


So, what to do?  The loophole in the rule turns out to be that word “area,” and the fact that there are no other specific rules for the initial release.  Studios can thus have a token run in a single theatre somewhere in the vicinity of Los Angeles, with no advertising and no screenings for critics, just to obtain Oscar eligibility–and then really open the film months down the road.

All of which explains why I schlepped out to join a few dozen other maniacs at the Laemmle theatre in West Hills, CA (about 25 miles from downtown LA), where Magnolia is barely releasing Lars Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA for an under-the-radar 7 day run that will end on Thursday July 28.  (Just to discourage prospective audiences even more, the film only runs once per day, in midafternoon.)   The film will soon be in more deluxe surroundings:  the Toronto Film Festival announced its inclusion yesterday, and it’s already won the Best Actress award for star Kirsten Dunst at Cannes.  (This was after Von Trier, not known for his tact, indulged in some ill-advised sarcasm on the subject of Adolf Hitler at a post-screening press conference, causing an international furor and rendering him “persona non grata” at the festival.)

After all that, you ask, how is the movie?  Absorbing and–if you have a high tolerance for European art-film pretentiousness–worthwhile, but even by Von Trier’s standards, a tough sit.  Think of it as the profoundly depressing other side of Another Earth‘s coin:  as in that film, a previously unknown planet is discovered and is approaching Earth, but while that prospect is greeted with hope and wonder in Another Earth, here it’s the cause for dread and acknowledgement of inevitable death.  (Not really a spoiler, since the destruction of the planet is the film’s dreamy opening sequence.)


Once the end of the world has been established, the film is divided into 2 parts, each named for one of the sisters at its center.  The first half takes place at the grand wedding reception for Justine (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Sarsgard), which is being hosted by John (Kiefer Sutherland), the fabulously rich husband of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg)–their estate has an 18-hole golf course, among other things.  The party begins festively enough, but tensions are everywhere–between Justine and Claire, Justine and her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander’s real-life father–although this being Von Trier, they have no scenes together), and between the girls’ divorced parents, the irresponsible Dexter (John Hurt) and bitter Gaby (Charlotte Rampling).  More seriously, it becomes increasingly clear that Justine suffers from a severe case of the title malady, and during the course of the evening, her facade of happiness and normalcy cracks, with disastrous results.

The second half of the story is still at the estate, but all the supporting characters are gone:  Justine has suffered a complete breakdown, and she comes to stay with Justine and John and their young son.  Meanwhile, the newly-discovered planet, which turns out to have the none-too-subtle same name as Justine’s mental state, is coming closer to its catastrophic collision with Earth, and everyone is either pretending not to believe it’s going to happen, or accepting oncoming death with something like calm satisfaction.

Some would say Von Trier is as much a cinematic provocateur as he is a filmmaker:  he was at the forefront of the “Dogme” movement that abolished use of background music and artificial light in its films, among other strict rules (not that his own movies often followed them); later projects included the dark musical Dancer In the Dark with Bjork; the surreal miniseries The Kingdom; The Idiots, with its mentally damaged cast members and hardcore sex; Dogville, filmed on an extremely stylized and almost empty soundstage; the racially explosive Manderlay, The Boss Of It All, shot with mechanized, pre-programmed cameras; and Antichrist, which featured explicit sexual mutilation.  So he’s not the guy likely to direct the next Marvel superhero movie.  The worth of all these films are open to debate, but they’re all fascinating to watch; Melancholia is less so.  After playing with super-slo-mo in the prologue sequence, Von Trier doesn’t have much to contribute cinematically other than an insistently jittery hand-held video camera, which is hardly revolutionary these days.  Although the film is well crafted and edited, it’s probably the least visually daring thing he’s ever shot.


Melancholia continues the mood of grief and psychological violence that marked Antichrist (but without the stomach-turning carnage).  While it’s tempting to say somebody should buy Von Trier a box of Cracker Jacks and a DVR Season Pass for Modern Family, there are passages in Melancholia that are emotionally powerful.  Dunst gives a strong, well-thought performance, especially in the first half, as she’s dragged inextricably down into the pit of her own disorder, and Gainsbourg, no stranger to art-house misery, brings fresh anguish to the film’s second half.  The movie doesn’t really go anywhere–it’s like a much more pretentious version of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, where the characters waited to be engulfed by the nuclear clouds that would kill them–but it has respect for its character’s despair.

Notwithstanding Magnolia’s clever maneuvers, it’s doubtful Melancholia will have much of a presence in the Oscar race.  The only real possibility is Dunst’s performance, and the fact that her character is deemphasized in the second half doesn’t help; also, how many Academy members are likely to watch all 136 minutes of this exercise in doomsday depression?  If the studio gets its hopes up, the film’s title is likely to be their mood when the year’s nominations are announced.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."