US theaters finally succumb to 'Melancholia'

Posted by · 12:05 pm · November 11th, 2011

Magnolia, the US distributor of Lars von Trier”s “Melancholia,” has employed something of a soft-shoe strategy in releasing the arthouse blockbuster – first there was that week-long, Oscar-qualifying L.A. release a few months ago, which enabled a video-on-demand release over a month ago. Today, it finally gets a theatrical release in a few key cities, with a wider limited release to follow next week.

It”s probably prudent to trickle the film out like this. Making a big splash of the release would inevitably prompt more of a media blitz on eternal troublemaker von Trier than the movie itself: the inflated Nazi-related controversy from Cannes has not only been discussed to death, but it has no bearing on the film itself, a thoughtful, subdued existential discussion that would likely disappoint provocation-seeking viewers. It”s been a fine line to walk, with a high risk of the film slipping through the cracks entirely – this despite boisterous box office in Europe and the UK, where it ranks as the highest grosser of von Trier”s career. And yet, surely enough, the film appears to be finding its feet, particularly where US critics are concerned.

For a prickly item that met with a split reception at Cannes, the critical consensus is tipping in a decidedly positive direction: most of the principal tastemakers, including Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss and Peter Travels, are on board, and for those who care about such numbers, its Metacritic rating stands at a pretty 82, an almost disproportionate show of approval for a film that aims to inspire argument.

Whether audiences will be curious enough to follow their advice remains to be seen, but it”s fair to say a film that – through no fault of its own – was looking like a PR nightmare nearly six months ago has been deservingly rehabilitated. I”ve seen some excitable voices in the blogosphere suggest that this turnaround, on the back of a dominant showing in last week”s European Film Award nominations, poses the film as some kind of awards-season player, which is hardly the case: Academy types rarely groove to chilly European formalism with a side salad of science-fiction, even from directors who don”t have “F.U.C.K.” tattooed across their knuckles.

Still, it does keep hope alive, however distantly, for Kirsten Dunst, one of several dark horses from the Euro fringe (along with the likes of Tilda Swinton and Olivia Colman) hoping to join the show if space suddenly becomes available. The critics” awards could be key here: I was wondering earlier this week how they might (or might not, as Sally Hawkins can tell you) impact the race, given that accepted Oscar heavyweights like Viola Davis and Michelle Williams are in films that cater to Academy tastes more than critical ones. Against the odds, critics” awards got an infinitely less starry von Trier leading lady, Emily Watson, into the circle 15 years ago; should one or two key groups rally around Dunst this year, could she emerge as a spoiler? It’s unlikely, but no longer inconceivable.

Still, that”s getting very far from the point, which is that “Melancholia” is finally on the big screens it should be seen on, and that cinephiles should hopefully be taking advantage. You may recall I was an admirer at Cannes, where I called it “[a] remarkable film, at once intimate and operatic in scope.” Now that you can see it for yourself, what are your thoughts?

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