Better To Import: Melancholia, Plus Filmbyen (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Just about every Lars von Trier film will make for an interesting DVD comparison, since he tends to come out with so many varied editions all around the world. 2011's Melancholia is probably actually one of the tamer ones. But on the other hand, it's a great example of cases where it's better to import than settle for the domestic US release. It may not be one of the most extreme cases, but it's at least one of the most clear-cut. ...Or is it?
Melancholia stars the underrated Kristen Dunst as Justine, a newlywed bride who suffers from such crushing depression, it physically manifests itself as a giant planet on a collision course with the Earth, creating a looming deadline for the entire human race. Of course, Dunst isn't alone; she's supported by an excellent cast, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland and Udo Kier. In fact, you could argue that Gainsbourg shares leading role duty, as halfway through the film, a title card appears, "Part Two: Claire," and the focus shifts to her character, Justine's sister. It's only really in this second half where everyone starts to acknowledge their impending doom, and the film becomes a terribly powerful and emotionally realistic, even while the central conceit is distinctly science fiction and metaphorical. Death is looming for us all, and we all have to decide how and why to go on with the finer details of our lives.
This movie is a real slow burn, and hopefully you're going in expecting a meditation on emotion rather than a sci-fi thriller. And even then it's not perfect; Trier seems to be showing off stylistically at points, at the expense of effective storytelling. For example, he makes references to other films (Solaris is one I spotted) that don't seem to serve much purpose but to wink at viewers who recognize it. It seems pretty widely accepted that the cinematography, performances and technique of this film are all top notch. But it's extremely divisive when it comes to relating to the story and characters. As a person deep in the throes of depression, Justine becomes very difficult to love, constantly making drastically selfish, destructive choices. You're either going to recognize that and relate or be frustrated to no end that you're being asked to identify with a lead character who's so conventionally and extremely unlikable. Just look how stringently those who reject this film do so - to me, that's a good indicator that a film is worth seeing.  heh heh
So, since Melancholia came out in 2011, it was a new release when it hit DVD and blu-ray, eliminating most of the transfer-related concerns we get with catalog titles. It's a safe bet the film will look and sound as it should on whichever release you pick up. It first arrived from Nordisk at the end of 2011, and reached the rest of the world, including the USA, Canada and France, in 2012. Since I couldn't wait, I got the Danish Nordisk blu; but it turns out it's better that I didn't wait, because the US version from Magnolia came up a little short. Actually, the UK's Artificial Eye disc would've been the best choice of all, but we'll get into all of that. I've got both the US DVD and blu-ray here, along with the Nordisk blu to compare. And then we'll get into the extras which really make all the difference.
Magnolia's 2012 DVD on top; Magnolia's 2012 blu middle; Nordisk's 2011 blu bottom.
So far, so good, right? The film's 2.35:1 framing is preserved identically on all three discs. Before buying it, I'd read a few reports that the Nordisk disc was 1080i and interlaced, but thankfully this wasn't the case. Both discs are dual-layered. Except for the DVD being softer and more compressed, as a standard definition image has to be, right? And both blus have lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio (even the DVD is 5.1), plus optional English subs. It's a tie. Oh but wait, there is one little thing. The Nordisk is a little brighter, with Magnolia's disc having the truer blacks. You probably wouldn't notice it just watching one disc after the other, but now that I've got them side by side like this, you spot it right away. It's not major, but it complicates things. Now we have to make a decision.
Because when it comes to extras, it's an easy choice to turn down the US disc. Not that it's barebones. Pretty much every release of Melancholia around the world features four short but interesting featurettes: About Melancholia, The Visual Style, About the Universe and VFX Featurette. The titles change slightly on different releases, but it's the same four. They feature interviews with Trier, Dunst and others, and they're all in the 5-11 minute range. They do feature clips from the film, but they're still a little deeper than your average promotional featurette, and therefore worth the watch.

Then the Magnolia disc has one unique extra: HDNet Look at Melancholia. This is a little five-minute piece, which viewed by itself is alright. But once you realize it's just made up of clips from the other four featurettes, re-edited into more of a promo piece, it's entirely skippable. That, the trailer, and a couple bonus trailers wrap up the Magnolia disc. Oh, and the DVD and blu feature the same extras, just to be clear.

Now Nordisk has all that stuff, plus one big additional feature... which actually, just about every international version has except the US disc, an audio commentary by Trier and film professor Peter Schepelern. And it's a really good track. Trier is very forthcoming and honest, even pointing out criticisms of his own work. And Schepelern mainly acts as a moderator, but has some good thoughts on the film from an outsider's perspective and isn't afraid to challenge Lars and disagree with him. Even knowledgeable fans will learn a lot. In fact, I found out I only caught about half the Solaris references - ha ha!

But now we come to the Artificial Eye blu, which I don't own, but have researched. First of all, it does have the truer blacks of the Magnolia disc (check out's review and see for yourself). And it also has all the all the extras of the US and Danish discs... plus more! Most notably, it has an almost hour long documentary called Filmbyen, named after and about Trier's film studio. Buuuut, if you're a really dedicated fan, there's actually a better way to see Filmbyen: it's own DVD from La Luna Productions.

Filmbyen, full-title: Filmbyen: La Nouvelle Mecque du Cinema? (The New Mecca of Cinema? in English), is a 2007 French documentary by Pablo Trehin-Marcot about the Filmbyen, the filmmaking city Lars co-owned with Peter Aalbek Jensen. It mostly consists of talking heads, as its DVD cover suggests, with Trier, Jensen and tons of the other filmmakers of all departments talking about the studio's history and what it's like making films there. One thing I was pleased to discover as I watched it is that it wasn't made in-house by Filmbyen's people as a promotional thing. I mean, it's hardly an indictment or condemnation, it's fairly enthusiastic and fawning, but it's still an objective documentary. It shows you around, there are some good anecdotes (and even full frontal nudity!) and it's pretty neat for fans interested in talking shop. Frankly however, casual viewers will probably find it boring.
This isn't just a standard def DVD, it's a film that was clearly shot on an old, standard definition camcorder, and despite being 1.68:1, given a non-anamorphic transfer to boot. It does not look impressive. However, it's presented in SD on the Artificial Eye blu-ray, too, because there's nothing more you can really do with this footage. But the DVD from La Luna comes with over an hour's worth of extras, which are unique to the DVD, and actually add quite a lot of value.

First up is Filming Filmbyen, the 'making of' for the documentary. It focuses primarily on a first-person interview with the director. The actual documentary gives us a much more detailed history and look at the workings of the studio, but this 'making of' actually gives us more of the feeling of actually being there, with more first person footage of the director exploring the various buildings. We also find out that, despite Trier being one of the talking heads of the film just like any other; he actually refused to give an interview for a long time, and getting him on camera was like a mini-Roger & Me situation. It also updates us on what happened to Filmbyen after the doc.
Yes, that's a real tank in their parking lot.
Then there's the complete, unedited interview with Lars. It offers us a few extra insights, and we see why Lars was reluctant to give the interview; he's really uncomfortable being unscripted on camera. And finally, there's another short film called One Day With Peter. Bits of this short are actually used in Filmbyen, but here it's its own distinct film, where the filmmaker follows Jensen around for an entire day, from him singing with his staff to sleeping in his private sauna. It's also full-screen, so at least there's not a problem with it being non-anamorphic.

None of those extras are on the Artificial Eye disc. So if you're interested, you have to buy the La Luna DVD. But, like I said, it's all pretty far down the rabbit hole... meaning most viewers who aren't deeply engrossed by extras could probably skip the whole thing. And the Artificial Eye disc does have one other set of extras - three short interviews with Trier, Dunst and Gainsbourg, extending the ones we saw in the previous featurettes - that none of the other discs have. They're very short, about five minutes each, and some of is repeating what we already heard, but still. More is better than less.
So ultimately, yes, even though I haven't got it, I'd say the Artificial Eye blu-ray from the UK is the best release of Melancholia. But the main thing you don't want to miss out on is the commentary, which is on the German, Danish, British... pretty much every country's blu except the USA. Personally, I'm content with my Nordisk/ La Luna DVD combo, even though AE's is admittedly even better (so long as you still also get the Filmbyen DVD, because those exclusive extras handily trump AE's exclusive extras), it's at least close enough. But if you only have the US disc, I would upgrade. I don't think that's close enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment