“Melancholia” is a solemn and unsettling examination of depression wrapped up in an end-of-the-world, sci-fi drama. It’s written and directed by the sometimes controversial Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and it’s been said that the picture was inspired by some of his own experiences with depression. In many ways it does feel deeply personal to von Trier and his treatment of the material is painfully real. But there are also a few instances where he forces his penchant for stylization and uniqueness onto the script. But even with the occasional lapse into self-indulgence, “Melancholia” is a lighter von Trier which for the most part really works.
“Melancholia” has a very interesting structure. It starts with a brief prelude set to the beautifully haunting music of Richard Wagner. The prelude features a synoptic montage of stylistic imagery that we later find out is directly tied to events in the film. It’s a pretty no-nonsense, straight-forward approach by von Trier and it seems like an attempt to put the audience’s focus in the right place. On the other hand, it wasn’t until after I had finished the film that I really appreciated the prelude. It was then that I saw the brilliance of this clever device.
The main story is broken into two parts and focuses on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first half of the film is simply entitled “Justine”. It follows Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and their lavish, high-priced wedding party thrown by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) at their luxurious home. Things start poorly when they arrive two hours late which clearly frustrates the cost-sensitive John. We’re then introduced to the sister’s immature and irresponsible father Dexter (John Hurt), their angry and cynical mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), and Justine’s self-absorbed boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard). While at first everything seems perfect for her, we slowly see Justine swallowed up by her genuine inner struggles with frustration, uncertainty, and depression. We watch as her happy bride facade crumbles and she becomes more and more detached. It’s painful and heart-breaking yet exquisite and utterly mesmerizing.
The second half of the film, titled “Claire”, jumps ahead in time and takes a drastic change of direction. Justine is brought back to live with Claire and John after succumbing to severe depression. But we begin to see that Claire has struggles of her own. She is battling fear and anxiety brought on by the possible destruction of the earth by an approaching rogue planet called “Melancholia”. It’s hinted at in the first half of the film, but we learn that most scientists believe the planet will pass by earth. John, who is enthralled with the astrological phenomenon, tries to ease Claire’s mind but differing Internet theories fuel her despair. It’s sad to watch both sister’s fall victim to their own mental frailties and the planetary threat, while real, is a subtle but agonizing metaphor.
“Melancholia” is a gripping, meditative film that’s delivered like an operatic mood piece. While sometimes slow and deliberate, the film moves at a measured pace that’s fairly effective even though the second half of the film does require some patience. The movie occasionally flirts with being ostentatious but von Trier manages to keep the film reined in. But there are some exceptions. There are a few scenes that seemed forced upon the story and served no other purpose than to be provocative or erotic. These speed bumps pulled me out of the movie and that hurts a picture like this that depends on our deep involvement in the story.
Despite the movie’s few flaws, there is no denying the strength of Kirsten Dunst’s performance. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was just how good she is here. You almost feel yourself being pulled into her collapsing world as she delivers what may be one of the most authentic portrayals of depression and it’s devastating effects. I’ve never seen her give a performance even close to this one and she could be in line for serious Oscar consideration. But to be honest, there isn’t a bad performance. Gainsbourg is fantastic as the complex Claire. Early in the film I was disgusted by her only to be completely sympathetic towards the character later. And it’s great to see Kiefer Sutherland once again in a role of substance. He nails ever scene he’s in and never sells his character short.
“Melancholia” is sure to be heralded by many to be a great film and in many ways it is. For my money a more tempered Lars von Trier is better and that’s what we get for most of the movie. He maintains a steady and solemn tone which doesn’t always make for happy viewing, but it works considering the subject matter. He also steps back and lets his really talented actors go. He uses some striking visuals but never overdoes them. They move poetically and almost hypnotically throughout the picture and I couldn’t take my eyes off each strategically placed sequence. But he did yank me out of his picture with a few self-indulgent scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s here where von Trier seems to be putting style over substance and the story suffers for it. But the movie is carried by the performances. I never doubted any of the characters and I would watch it again just see these great actors work.