Review: Melancholia (15) / Director: Lars von Trier / Screenplay: Lars von Trier / Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland / Release date: Out Now
It seems as if Lars Von Trier is one of those directors who really needs to get out of his own way. At the Cannes film festival last summer, his film Melancholia met with some critical praise and it seemed as if he would end up walking away with some awards. Then he made that ill-advised Nazi comment and was declared persona non grata by the French meaning that effectively the adoration for his film was eclipsed by the controversy. Melancholia is very much cinematic marmite, it may even be more divisive than The Tree of Life but you can’t deny it’s an impressive art-house experience worth watching.
Melancholia begins with some impressively staged almost still shots of the impending doom that is yet to come, before arriving at the remote country mansion complete with golf course where depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is about to be married. We meet her affable groom (Alexander Skaarsgaard) her uptight sister and her millionaire husband (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland) her drunken lush of a father (John Hurt) and pushy boss (Stellan Skaarsgaard). As the evening wears on, Justine does her best to put a brave front on things when inside she feels anything but cheery, constantly wandering off and trying to sleep. We learn that her mother (Charlotte Rampling) may be something to do with her condition as she has lots of similar nihilistic tendencies. Eventually the evening draws to a close with Justine eventually acting out on her feelings and moping around in her wedding dress until dawn. This is the first half of the film, the second follows Gainsbourg, as her sister Claire, who dotes on her son and cares for a post wedding, catatonic Justine much to her husband’s disapproval. The science fiction element comes in the form of a planet named ‘Melancholia’ which has appeared in our solar system from behind the sun and is due to pass us by. Claire is increasingly worried about the appearance of the planet, convinced that it is going to crash straight into the Earth despite what her husband says. All the relationships are strained as the apocalypse looms and Justine embraces the end whilst Claire clings on to life.
Apparently Lars Von Trier suffers from depression and you can tell in every single frame of this film. Anti-Christ may have been more on the nose than many could take but with Melancholia the metaphors are hardly subtle, they are smack in your face. A planet called Melancholia may well pass us by and everything will be okay, or it may well send us to oblivion. Depression sufferers will know this sensation all too well, often feeling initially it’s just a phase or is something that threatens to consume their whole existence. Von Trier gets his depiction of depression absolutely right and it may well be the first film to get this dead on without going all self-consciously quirky about it. Kirsten Dunst is absolutely incredible here after being absent from our screens in anything of note for a while. Dunst plays Justine as a woman so sad and so without a purpose that she alienates everybody around her and affects the lives of her nearest and dearest with her self-absorbed moping. Rumour was a while back that Dunst suffered from some demons of her own which kept her out of the acting game for a bit and it feels as if she channels every ounce of that experience into the performance. Von Trier really did her a disservice with his behaviour in Cannes as she was cruelly overlooked at this year's academy award nominations and this is probably the best performance of the past year.
The second half of the film concerns Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character whilst Kirsten Dunst is put into the background. We also get more of Kiefer Sutherland as her often bewildered and frustrated husband. Whilst Gainsbourg’s role is perhaps the less showy of the two it’s still an impressive performance. Gainsbourg plays a character clearly capable of great love and kindness that flips between wide-eyed wonder at the galactic spectacle unfolding and sheer terror at the possibility of annihilation. It’s a nice flip side to the other sister who is capable of great affection towards her family but often hurts the ones who care most for her.
The climax is inevitable, it’s spoiled in the first eight minutes but the build-up is intense and well played out. Considering this is an art-house film they don’t scrimp on the special effects, although if you are looking for the giant tidal waves and earthquakes in something like 2012 then you will be disappointed. The tension mainly comes from the uncertainty over whether Justine will embrace her family and be with them come the end of the world, and that’s something that is rare in these days of bloated budget spectacles with an emphasis on explosions rather than emotion.
Melancholia won’t be for everyone. I have met just as many people that hate it as people who placed it high on their top ten lists for 2011. It’s a film that will stay with you for a long time after the credits have rolled and Lars Von Trier continues to be a successful director in terms of making you actually feel something. Let’s just keep him away from the press…
Extras: Making of, Astrophysics feature and Interviews