‘Melancholia’ is a film that is going to be extremely divisive. Not everyone is going to appreciate this, and yet there are going to be some that laud this as one of the finest films ever made. I can certainly see its flaws, and yet there is this underlying captivating atmosphere that I can’t help but wholly appreciate.
‘Melancholia’ is a unique and engrossing experience that is less what it seems and more what you’d come to expect from an auteur as controversial as Lars von Trier.
The opening montage of cataclysmic destruction plays out like a Vogue editorial shoot captured in slow motion. It seems almost anticlimactic to show us the end before the beginning, and while I understand that this cinematic trick (or gimmick) is initially rather off-putting and presumes to fail the overall purpose of the film somewhat by showing us the cause of concern before we truly understand the concern building in the key characters, it works in a way that I can’t quite explain. I personally was rather upset with the sequence upon watching it, but as the film tied itself together I found myself calling it to mind with awe for I saw how the pieces of that puzzle came together in an unexpected way.
And, one cannot forsake its beauty.
And then the actual film starts, which is broken into two sections.
The first part of ‘Melancholia’ focuses on Justine, the bride. Her lavish wedding begins with promise. Her ‘filthy rich’ brother-in-law has paid for the spectacle to take place at his gigantic home, complete with a butler, an 18 hole golf course and a slew of guest rooms (with baths, not showers). The joyous couple show up late, thanks to an oversized limo and some narrowly curved roads, and then all joy seems to evaporate as Justine’s intense depression sets in and begins to erode her happiness. Everyone around her fails to understand her condition, even though most of them try (especially her groom and her sister). Justine seems bewitched by a red star she seems looming overhead; a star that goes unseen by the others. This star sets a strange precedent for the remains of the evening as Justine’s behavior becomes more reclusive and catatonic almost.
Bridges are burned, relationships are broken all hope is lost.
The second half switches focus to Claire, the elder sister. While Justine is certainly suffering from depression, Claire begins to delve into paranoia as the impending collision with the mysterious planet Melancholia grows closer and closer. They don’t ever say how much time as elapsed since the wedding, where that ‘star’ first reared its head, but Justine is still sulking in misery and the agitation she caused on that ‘blessed day’ obviously still lingers.
“It tastes like ashes.”
With only five days left before Melancholia is supposed to ‘pass’ Earth, Claire and Justine begin to come to terms with the inevitabilities of their futures.
At the core of ‘Melancholia’ is a sharply constructed look at mental instability and the effect it has on our own personal survival. Justine’s character is of particular interest because her depression, which is initially assumed to stem from the planet traveling towards Earth, is almost eased by the foreknowledge that the end is coming. She possesses a unique bond with the planet, a connection (as seen by her nude moon-bathing) that helps ease her dissention since she is obviously of the accord that life on Earth is corrupted; infected with an evil that, even in its most unintuitive form is still prevalent and contaminating.
For her, eradication is a way out of a life she cannot support.
From a technical standpoint, ‘Melancholia’ is something special. The imagery is stunning. Lars von Trier has a great track record of using a film’s cinematography to eclipse the viewer and sustain his themes. ‘Antichrist’ was a film that suffered in conception and yet it was sustained to a degree thanks to the beautiful and captivating way in which it was shot (not to mention Gainsbourg’s phenomenal performance). Here, the night sky is illuminated by cascading stars and eerily shifted cloud structures. Even the murky yet polished way in which the close-ups are rendered is astonishing to watch. I was really taken by the nostalgic score, one that embodied the same sound and atmosphere as the classic apocalyptic and science fiction films. The drama is there, bolded with each swell in the music.
Performance-wise, the film belongs to Kirsten Dunst. She is remarkable here. This is a truly restrained and intimate performance, no real showboating or dramatics involved. Instead, Dunst takes a far more realistic look at depression by holding it all in. Sure, she has her crying fits and breakdowns, but she internalizes so much. I’m so happy for her Cannes win, especially since Oscar will most likely look the other way (they like their actresses to SHOW their pain), but I completely concur with many who say this is quite possibly her finest work. She has been one of my favorite actresses for years, and I am so thrilled to see her making some intriguing and rewarding film choices (she should have won the Oscar last year for her tremendous work in ‘All Good Things’). I also was wholly impressed with Kiefer Sutherland, who dwelled in the skin of his character, adding little touches that made him feel complete as opposed to a mere prop (unlike the younger Skarsgard, who just proved uninteresting). Kiefer portrays an odd warmth, paternal and yet elusively selfish. You can see his colors changing as the film progresses, and his many shades, while never blatant or wholly exposed, haunt long after he’s left the screen.
In the end, ‘Melancholia’ is probably the strangest ‘apocalyptic’ film you’ll ever see, and while it contains certain flaws, those flaws are swallowed and digested by the films ravenous pluses. The pacing is extraordinary (don’t listen to the naysayers claiming this film drags, for it most certainly does not) for it allows the impending dread to set it slowly, meticulously, calculated and yet entirely natural so that you feel yourself letting go as you watch Justine and Claire prepare themselves for the afterlife.