By Janine Gericke.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia opens with an achingly slow motion shot of Kirsten Dunst, looking drenched and disturbed as birds tumble from the sky behind her. As the audience stares, hushed and humbled, Wagner’s Tristan and Islode – brought to life by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra – saturates the scene. This is the end of the world. The planet Melancholia is on a collision course with the earth. This is one of the most stunning opening sequences I’ve ever seen. Each image plays in extreme slow motion, creating feelings of awe and curiosity. These images are so still, with just the slightest movement, like gazing at a melting portrait. The visual effects that von Trier uses add a feeling of foreboding eagerness to see what will happen. In one particularly striking shot, Dunst’s character is running in her wedding dress, while the earth around her seems to come to life, reaching out to drag her back. Then we see it: The end of earth, the end of all life. And that is just the beginning.
Melancholia is told in two parts. Part 1 introduces Justine (Dunst) just after her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The setting takes place at a vast estate, far removed from the rest of the world. Everyone has gone out of their way to make Justine happy on her special day, including her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Claire’s rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), and Justine’s father Dexter (John Hurt). We quickly watch as Justine’s joy and laughter fade, and a new emptiness settles in. Justine’s mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is the only one who is as ill at ease with the wedding as Justine herself. Her mother disappears during the reception, without any thought of how that would affect Justine. It is at her wedding reception where we learn of Justine’s struggle with depression. As her pain becomes more obvious, she seems determined to destroy any hope of happiness. What should be one of the most joyous days of her life seems like just another ritual or traditional obligation.
Part 2 is entitled Claire. While Part 1 could be considered, a bit ham-handedly, as the destruction of Justine’s life by (small M) melancholia, Part 2 is obviously Claire’s destruction by Melancholia. We learn that John and Claire have been watching Melancholia for some time. John is convinced that the planet will not impact the earth, but Claire worries that he may be wrong. It’s a bit of dramatic irony that we already know how this story is going to end. Now some time after the wedding, Justine joins her sister, brother-in-law and nephew back at their estate. At this point, she has been completely consumed by her depression, practically incapable of doing anything for herself. This keeps the viewer at a distance from Justine, making it hard to empathize with this shell of a person. Everyone else on the estate is terrified that Melancholia will destroy the earth, but Justine embraces and welcomes it – seeming to get better the closer Melancholia gets. She sees the earth as a cruel place and finally finds some peace with the realization that it is only a matter of time before Melancholia obliterates everything. Justine’s transformation takes place through Claire’s gaze. Part 2 also gives the viewer more insight into Claire and Justine’s relationship. It was Claire who stayed by Justine’s side through her wedding reception, while their mother and father both emotionally checked out. With her sister in such a fragile state, Claire becomes her caretaker, which just highlights that Claire is more based in reality and her world consists of the lives and wellbeing of those around her. By the very end of the film, Claire, who has kept it together so well, is finally giving in and showing how frightened she is because nothing can be done. When it finally does happen, even though we have already witnessed the earth’s demise, it is still shocking and painful because we see the close through Claire’s eyes.
This is a magnificent and disquieting film. Von Trier and his cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro, craft brilliant compositions, full of color and texture. One sumptuous overhead shot follows Justine and Claire as they ride horses through lush and misty green woods – this may be the first time a helicopter shot has ever made me feel a sense of peace and wonder. However, as absolutely breathtaking as the film is, it is not without its flaws. The themes of the film are a bit contrived, from Justine’s crushing depression to the life-crushing planet, Melancholia. We also never have a chance to gain any attachment to these characters. In fact, the only character that I felt sympathy for was Claire, and even that didn’t arise until the very end of the film. Witnessing her utter panic at the realization that the planet is going to be destroyed is both heartbreaking and terrifying.
Melancholia is a slow burn, but be patient. In my opinion, this film fits in more with von Trier’s more palatable films like Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). It avoids some of the overblown shock-for-shock’s-sake tricks of his other films, namely the genital-mutilation filled Antichrist (2009). Melancholia certainly struck a chord, leaving me dazed and introspective well after viewing. Kirsten Dunst gives an emotionally raw performance and Charlotte Gainsbourg is gracefully subtle. Of course, it’s always wonderful to see Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt and Stellan Skarsgård in just about anything. Love it or hate it, this film begs to be talked about – much as all of von Trier’s films do. Although the subject matter may be difficult for some, it is quite a sight to see. Just don’t watch it alone.
Melancholia is available to rent through Video On Demand, iTunes and Amazon, and will hit theatres November 11.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Bryan Nixon’s review of Melancholia here.