Melancholia

It’s another week, and it’s another review of an apocalyptic film that deals with crippling mental disorders. However, unlike last week’s Take Shelter, which had fun playing with our perceptions of what’s real or what’s imagined, Lars Von Trier’s take is decidedly less subtle.

Melancholia is the second film in what I can only imagine to be the most devastating film trilogy of all time. Of course, Trier does not make trilogies in the literal sense, but he always works in threes stylistically and thematically. His most famous “trilogy” is the Golden Heart Trilogy, consisting of Breaking The Waves, his breakout masterpiece, The Idiots, his most unwatchable film, and Dancer in the Dark, a film that makes my tear ducts hate me. These three films are called the Golden Heart Trilogy because each movie’s protagonist is mentally incapable of rational thought, yet they are overwhelmingly loving and generous to others. Each film ends with the almost Christ-like protagonist suffering a terrible fate.

His other trilogies, while more loosely connected, also share similar themes. He has a paranoid detective trilogy from the late ’80’s and early ’90’s that shared many stylistic qualities, but his writing was not yet as unified and mature as it has become. His Dogville trilogy, which as of this review is not yet finished, shares the same protagonist through the films, but very different thematic material.

The trilogy he is working on now, beginning with the much misinterpreted Antichrist, is built around the philosophy that there is nothing worth loving in this world. The protagonists in both Antichrist and Melancholia deal with a depression that makes them immobile. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s She in Antichrist is sent into her depression because she feels responsible for her son’s accidental death. Her suffering has a concrete cause, a catalyst, that the audience can relate to and sympathize with.

Kirsten Dunst’s Justine in Melancholia does not have such a good excuse. Of course, this does not make her depression any less serious, or real, but it does put the audience in a strange position. Unlike She, who is constantly reporting the reasons behind her feelings, Justine remains silent on the subject. When she does speak, she is lashing out against the people who are controlling her life. She is a character who almost defies sympathy. She is a box we can’t open, just like the people in our lives who really suffer from this disease.

The film begins with a wedding,  Justine’s wedding, which has been meticulously planned by her sister, Claire, and we quickly realize that Justine is hiding a deep depression behind her smile. She constantly finds reasons to escape the house, the spotlight, her sister, her new husband. She is suffocated by the ritual of the wedding, by the people who surround her. She doesn’t want any of it and she doesn’t know how to tell them.

One of the first shots of the film

Okay, I lied. The film actually begins, as Antichrist does, with a beautifully shot, slow-motion prologue. In the opening shot, Justine has electricity shooting from her fingers and Claire is running across a golf course, sinking into the grass, holding her son. A giant planet is looming over Earth, twenty times its size, sucking the atmosphere into its oceans. And then Melancholia, the titular planet, smashes into Earth, exploding it.

We get all of this before a single line of dialogue is spoken. Just a few extraordinarily staged shots (most of which can be spotted in the trailer) and one terrifying vision of the end of the world.

And then the wedding starts. Tens of characters are introduced, not unlike the very best Robert Altman films of the early seventies, and something weird happens. For the first time in a Lars Von Trier film, I had a lot of fun. There is humor and warmth to the first half of this film. Apart from, you know, the destruction of the planet. John Hurt plays a lovable grandfather, Keifer Sutherland plays an arrogant, rich scientist who is trying to please his unpleasable sister, Udo Kier plays a tragically underutilized wedding planner, Stellan Skarsgaard plays a hilariously forthright advertising agent, and the list goes on. The characters are all written quite well, and the scenes often play like the very best sections of Nashville.

It’s a little stunning how warm and funny the first half of the film really is, considering how dark and nihilistic the films final half becomes. This tonal shift is placed almost completely on Dunst’s performance, which is, I have to say, remarkable. I have never really seen true talent in Dunst before. She’s passable, but I’ve mostly written her off as beautiful and one-note. But here, she is really doing something special. She is given the almost impossible task of carrying the ridiculous ambition of Von Trier’s script, which includes tens of characters, an apocalyptic, science-fiction plot, and wild tone shifts between light-hearted comedy and deeply moving chamber drama.

I’m not sure how Trier knew she could do it, but she can. And not only is her performance adequate for the film, it’s really one of the more nuanced and profound performances I’ve seen in quite some time. Meryl Streep might be the queen of impersonation and accents, but Kirsten Dunst is the one to beat during this year’s awards season. Her performance is stunning.

The other performers do a good job, particularly Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is relegated to playing what is essentially the audience. Justine’s brick wall of emotion is so indecipherable that Trier had to add a character who substitute’s all of Justine’s emotions for us.

For the last couple of decades, Lars Von Trier has been writing and directing films that show us exactly what he is afraid of. He is famously scared of everything, having never ridden an airplane in his life, or gone overseas, or even left Europe. He has attempted suicide, accepted Hitler into his heart, and forced Bjork to quit acting, and yet he continues on in his quest to make the world’s bleakest movie. I thought that maybe Antichrist, in all of its excruciating, violent, and upsetting glory, was the end result of this quest.

I was wrong.

Melancholia is. And it is also the most brilliant movie of his career.

[Note: One small problem I had with the film is that Claire and Justine are sisters, yet one of them has a French-British accent and one sounds like she’s from Maryland. Their parents are both British, as well as pretty much everybody else in the movie who isn’t Keifer Sutherland. But I got over it.]

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  • I really need to see this movie based on this review.

  • Sounds perfectly strange and beautiful. So are you saying this is one of his more accessible films? I'm glad because I really want to enjoy Melancholia. As always, thanks for the insightful analysis.

  • Matthew and I have been wanting to see this (Matthew more so than me on some days) and you have me sold even more. Kudos.