Note: In typical Lars Von Trier fashion, he has made a divisive film, and in that spirit I also recommend you read Stefan Haley’s take.
Like many film fans, I have a turbulent relationship with Lars Von Trier’s work. I adore Breaking The Waves, Dancer in the Dark and his Five Obstructions project but outright loathe The Idiots, among others. I prefer this new phase in Von Trier’s career, which is visually sumptuous and expressionistic, as opposed to the bland ugliness of his Dogme 95 days.
In this spirit, the opening sequence to Melancholia is one of the most remarkable looking in film all year, an exquisite beauty equal to Von Trier’s work in his divisive Antichrist – but with considerably less genitalia, I must say. Like his 2009 horror, the film mixes Von Trier’s traditional shakycam and loose editing style with his more lavish imagery. It’s something that feels like it shouldn’t work together but it does, much like a lot of the ideas that Von Trier plays with in these movies.
The film is split into two parts with the first segment, titled “Justine”, focusing on the wedding night of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). This piece serves to introduce all the key players and the interpersonal dramas that seem to dominate their lives. The reception is a complete debacle, with delays and family conflicts making things very uncomfortable for the bride. It hit me almost immediately that her reaction was more than the result of wedding day jitters; she wasn’t simply breaking under the pressure, she was imploding. Justine suffers from severe depression, the first half of the film primarily focuses on the way the world around her help or hinder her condition.
Part two, titled “Claire” after Justine’s sister, deals with the arrival of “Melancholia”, a rogue planet moving dangerously close to Earth with the potential to destroy all life. Meanwhile, a severely ill Justine has arrived at the stately home of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Keifer Sutherland), to aid in her recovery, and deals with the way both Justine and Claire process the idea of all life coming to an end.
Justine begins this portion of the film as the fractured remains of what we saw before, but finding a form of peace in the possibility of complete destruction – akin to the calm that comes over a damaged person the day before they decide to kill themselves. Claire, however, is cursed with good mental health and the prospect of everything she knows dying begins to unravel her.
In the past, Von Trier’s films have mirrored the emotional turmoil of its characters with moments of severe physical brutality and here, in depicting depression and despair, he frames it within the context of a total extinction event. It’s a dramatic externalisation of these all-consuming mental afflictions and it works so well because it is mostly left to exist as a metaphor, no one beats the point around your head, it is left to hang in the air much like Melancholia itself.
I have my own personal experiences with severe depression and Kirsten Dunst perfectly recreates the life of a such a person, which is one of the most un-cinematic forms of mental illness because by its definition it is an absence of what makes a life; it is quiet, weak and frustratingly helpless. Von Trier and Dunst wisely maintain the realism of Justine’s problems without resorting to cheap histrionics. She is raw and exposed (in more ways than one) and it is the kind of work that makes you completely re-evaluate your opinions on an actor.
Gainsbourg begins the film wrestling with her sympathy and resentment for her sister’s self-destructive illness and the burden it brings to those around her, while her work in the second part feels like a gentler take on her harrowing mental decline in Antichrist. She is every bit as capable and impressive as Dunst.
Kiefer Sutherland was wonderful. I have always been a fan but this surprised me. His character is pompous and prone to fits of anger (an emotion Sutherland has made a career out of) but with a softness that manages to undercut the arrogance and frustration. It may be my favourite Sutherland performance yet.
In small supporting roles, Von Trier has assembled a great cast of actors and they all do quality work. My personal favourites were Charlotte Rampling, so brutally forthright as the mother of Justine and Claire, and Udo Kier as a melodramatic wedding planner who manages to convey so much character and much needed humour with just the use of his hand.
Surprisingly, this may be Lars Von Trier’s most accessible film to date, despite the typically slow pace and flights of fancy, it remains emotionally honest but lacks all the aggression that usually marks his films. Instead we get a quieter, more mournful and reflective work. When I first experienced Antichrist, I was rapt with a mix of love, revulsion and bewilderment; it felt like a film that sought to tear itself to pieces and, in the process, tear Von Trier himself to pieces. Confronting a lot of the ugliness and pain within his work and himself, it was self-destruction as artistic expression. With Melancholia we see a man sifting through the detritus left behind, creating something new and beautiful and peaceful with what he finds.