Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia touches on humanity’s existence in relation to the universe by taking an intimate approach to drama. It’s a refreshing twist on the end-of-the-word disaster flicks that often feel superficial and unsatisfying in a junk food way after the end credits. At the same time, von Trier shows a movie need not sacrifice impressive special effects when considering the intimate approach. Dazzling scenes of what seem to be the last seconds before annihilation bookend the film. In effect, the encounter with the sublime in Melancholia is probably more powerfully felt than in many end-of-the-world sci-fi movies that came before it. It comes close to the feeling of the starchild approaching earth in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but only comes close.
At the heart of this movie is the relationship between two sisters: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Love and tension between the two shift and flip at Justine’s wedding, which takes up the first half of the movie, and during the pair’s waiting as the cataclysmic inevitable approaches, during the second half. A series of luscious, vibrant shots in extreme slow-motion, kick off Melancholia. The images shift almost as slowly as clouds billow and morph in the sky while the mournful prelude of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolode” churns on the soundtrack. At the center of the images are the emotionally wound up Justine, her supportive sister Claire and Claire’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr). All are outside the property of a fancy mansion by the shore as the gigantic planet Melancholia creeps on its collision course with Earth (there are also dazzling cutaways to space). Everything seems frozen in the last seconds of earth’s demise, and the dragging pace opens the film up for contemplation. One sister enjoys these last moments of life with wonder while the other suffers in helpless horror. It is one gorgeous, meditative moment after another that encapsulates the extreme reactions one must expect when the entirety of planet earth is about to be consumed by another planet, which will probably continue drifting through space, leaving no trace of this world’s inhabitants and their history. Utter oblivion of not only the present, but also the past and any hope of the future, as well.
The opening images have a dream-like quality. In fact, during her wedding reception, Justine references the image of tree roots dragging her down, which appears during the film’s prelude. This may seem like a flash forward to the world’s end, but it is actually the weight of the universe Justine feels as she battles depression. It just happens to look the same as the end of the world imagery that closes the movie.
Throughout her post-wedding celebrations to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at the sprawling country manor, Justine seems depressed beyond hope, moping throughout, avoiding the cake-cutting with a dip in the tub, not to mention having sex with one of the guests she only just met. As the movie progresses, she gets so down in the dumps that her sister must even bath her. But then the planet Melancholia approaches, growing bigger in the sky, prepared to not so subtly put her out of her misery, and she finds peace. She bathes in its glow at night, lying naked by a creek like some melancholic form of lunatic (surely the pun is intended). Now, the rested Justine must soothe her panicked sister who has a growing son and supportive husband (Kiefer Sutherland).
It’s a bit over-the-top, as one can expect by the leading pessimist of cinema. Von Trier has been quite vocal about his battle with depression, stating not only was this film his way of channeling his depression in a productive manner, but also his previous film, Antichirst, which dealt with a couple coping with the loss of their toddler son in an accident. In that film, Gainsbourg played the demented woman while her psychologist husband (Willem Dafoe) tried treating her during a retreat in a cabin in the woods. She would end up castrating him with a piece of lumber and snipping off her own clitoris. Von Trier has no comfort in the subtlety of anguish.
Therefore, it feels right that the only relief a character like Justine finds from her depression is in the impending doom of the planet earth. But it’s also a tad ego-maniacal. Where does that leave the more centered Claire when faced with the end of her life, not to mention that of her husband and child? Here von Trier’s loses his way. He is so fond with exploring the darkness he cannot see the light in anyone that might be happy. So, of course, in von Trier’s world, the mentally sane people, content and invested in earth’s continued existence, go insane. It makes for a tiresome second half of a two-hour-plus movie. Part 2, lacking in the dynamic action informed by Justine’s acting out at the wedding, and the messed up characters that parade through, including her colorful parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), becomes a bit dull and redundant. Claire now has her turn to melt down while Justine becomes some distant, crazed shamanistic enigma who suddenly finds peace. It’s no wonder Dunst won the best actress award at this year’s Cannes for her role and Oscar buzz has followed. The same was not said for Gainsburg or even the director. It’s a fault in an otherwise luscious film to watch. Yet it is still a big fault worth noting, as the film’s second half dwells on for too long. Key to any good movie is a story the viewer must feel invested in, featuring characters showing some depth, but this seems to disappear during the second half in a manner not worth spoiling in a review.
Beyond Dunst’s acting (it is also known that she too, like the director, suffered from a depression so profound she needed in-patient therapy, though she is not as vocal about it as the more shameless von Trier: read this interview). Ultimately, there is no denying the power of the simplicity in von Trier’s stylized imagery that opens and closes the film, however. His intentions are also solid, though his ego gets a bit in the way, but I feel inclined to forgive him that thanks to the character of Justine and Dunst’s portrayal of her.
Melancholia is rated R and premieres in South Florida Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 pm at UM’s Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables featuring a discussion between a distinguished panel and members of the audience following the screening. It also opens Friday, Nov. 18, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 6:25 p.m. and O Cinema in Miami at 7:30 p.m.