***originally written 17 October 2011***
Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, and she has just been wed to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). They’re an altogether unfairly beautiful couple, and their wedding reception has been planned lovingly by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and heavily financed by Claire’s rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) at a lavish country house complete with an 18-hole golf course. It’s a divine setting for a perfect day… except Justine isn’t quite in the spirit of things.
Much to the rather comedic consternation of John and Claire, Justine persists in spoiling their carefully laid plans; taking naps and baths when she ought to be cutting cakes and receiving toasts. Her poor husband is rejected in favour of a wet-behind-the-ears co-worker, confused and disorientated by what is happening to him, whilst Justine herself is only within reach of knowing her motivations. Melancholia, as the title really does suggest, is Lars Von Trier’s testament and examination of the irrationality of depression.
And depression is a hard thing to translate onto film. Dunst is probably deserving of more praise than it would initially appear that she deserves. It is a thankless role to be sure. But between her blank expressions and tightly held silences and Von Trier’s restless camera, the complexities of the disorder are captured. The selfishness, the inner turmoil, the contrariness, the self-hate. For someone suffering both quietly and not-so-quietly as Justine is, the extreme focus of a wedding reception is a nightmare scenario. No wonder she avoids it at every conceivable opportunity.
This extended reception sequence takes up half of the entire movie like a Robert Altman ensemble piece. A comedy of manners. And there is comedy in Melancholia, it is important to remember that. Kiefer Sutherland especially is priceless as John, turning “unbelievable” into a cheer-worthy catchphrase as dependable as a Jack Bauer “dammit”. Likewise Udo Kier’s put-upon wedding planner provides slight but significant laughs as a man mortified by trivialities. One might look upon Melancholia as a delightfully dark critique of bourgeoisie culture… except… except I’ve left something out. Something quite significant to the story, really.
The end of the world.
Because, you see, Melancholia is framed by a far more baffling story in which a planet that has been hidden by the sun is moving rapidly toward the Earth, and there’s a fair chance (this being a Lars Von Trier movie and all) that this will ultimately spell disaster. This is captured with astonishing, ludicrous beauty in the overture at the top of the film. Similar to, but far more ambitious than the sequence that opened Antichrist, Von Trier begins the movie with an arresting series of images that evoke a dark inversion of The Tree Of Life. Here, caught in the torpor of slow motion, the film’s principal characters are helpless against the inevitable impact of the two planets. The ground starts to swallow people, birds fall from the sky, art is burned. It’s wilfully silly, but disarmingly beautiful. And almost, almost forgotten about, until the movie’s arduous second half.
Set some time after the wedding (and notably absent of Skarsgard), it shows Justine convalescing with her sister Claire and brother-in-law John, as anxiety over the presence of this new planet – a planet named Melancholia no less – manifests differently in the family. Claire, before so controlled, unravels before our eyes (kudos once more to Gainsbourg, showing equal commitment to her role here as she portrayed in Antichrist). Sutherland makes optimistic John a genuine tragedy, as he puts on a brave face for so long that he believes it himself – all the more devastating when said optimism seems so misplaced, whilst Dunst’s Justine is eerily calm in the face of obliteration, welcoming the end, even, perhaps, summoning it in the first place.
This second section is dark. Von Trier has rarely shied away from grim subject matter in the past, but Melancholia is steeped in an almost unprecedented bleakness. It is almost stifling. The comedic flourishes of the first half are vanquished in favour of an unsettling mood. You know where it is headed; the opening overture has already shown you what is to come, and yet the journey there is long and torturous, blighted with problematic metaphors and portentous dialogue. Justine’s behaviour in part two is very difficult to sympathise with, as she seemingly regresses to petulant child. Yet finally it is she who is able to give her sister and her nephew a strange sort of hope, albeit cloaked in serene, insincere resignation.
Melancholia is a film filled with pairs; Justine and Claire, the Earth and Melancholia, Justine and Michael, Claire and John. In each of these pairings there is an imbalance that causes one to be consumed by the other. This is a film in which all elements vie with one another for supremacy. Justine’s depression crackles against Claire’s anxiety. John’s overt optimism bristles against Claire’s frazzled paranoia. And the larger metaphor of planet Melancholia cannot be lost on anyone, as Justine’s existential crisis literally devours all.
This is not a film for everyone.
Indeed many will outright hate it. Most will. And I wouldn’t openly recommend it. Von Trier has always been an acquired taste but even more-so than Antichrist, Melancholia seems set to be his most divisive work to date. By littering the ensemble cast with pretty, famous faces, Von Trier has given the sneaky impression that this is his mainstream movie.
Not a bit of it.
This is gruelling, conflicting, sometimes-maddening film making, as audacious as it is stubbornly pretentious. Yet as tiring as it sometimes is, it cannot be argued that Melancholia is in many ways a masterwork, from its breathtaking sound design (especially toward the end) and heavenly score (throughout), to its ability to evoke such strong, pervasive reactions in the viewer. I anticipated taking a lot longer to reach a point where I was able to review this movie, and maybe as a result my thoughts have been rushed, but Melancholia is a piece of work that has left me restless and eager to try to understand it’s nature. I hope I’ve captured at least some of it here. Guaranteed to cause debate and argument, be prepared to be provoked.