Lars Von Trier is known as much for his controversial nature as he is for his films, but at the end of the day he’s known as a great filmmaker. Melancholia stands as one of his best.
His previous film Antichrist was talked about for it’s graphic nature, even before it screened and he was deemed persona non grata at this year’s Cannes Festival after some comments he made at a press conference for Melancholia.
The film isn’t coincidentally titled. It’s depressing. But it’s depressing in the best way, if that’s possible. From the very beginning, Von Trier tells the audience that Earth is doomed. He doesn’t want to leave you wondering. He wants you engaged and not bothered by wondering Earth’s fate.
The film is split into two distinct, but connected, parts. The first is titled Justine and takes place during the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The reception is held at the house of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Calling it a mansion is an understatement and John can’t stop boasting about his 18-hole golf course.
However, it’s immediately apparent that all isn’t right with Justine. She’s distant, despondent and moody, even with her new husband. She also escapes the party at every opportunity, whether it’s to put her nephew to sleep or just to hop in a golf cart for a quick, nighttime drive. Whatever’s going on, she’s not acting like a newlywed normally does.
Her sister Claire is obviously upset with her sister’s indifference, as is her curmudgeon husband who keeps reminding Justine how much he spent on the shindig. Those looking for a plot throughout this will be frustrated. It’s mostly structureless and instead of dwelling on plot, it focuses on Justine and those around her. As time goes on, though, we slowly begin to understand Justine. It isn’t through long monologues or large declarations but in the little things that are said and, most importantly, what’s not said.
Her husband’s best man is actually her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) who keeps hounding her for a tag line for their new advertisement. Then there’s her mom Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) who’s dinner speech consists of saying how marriage is a huge mistake and she doesn’t support Justine in any of it. Her father Dexter (John Hurt) is only interested in the younger women on either side of him. That enough would ruin any bride’s wedding party. But it’s not just that. Justine just can’t seem to muster the energy for any of it. She keeps telling everyone that she’s smiling as big and wide as she can but no one wants a facade. They want her to be truly happy and she isn’t.
Part 2 is titled Claire and takes place some time later. Justine is again brought to her and John’s house, only this time she’s in a stupor. Upon her arrival she’s immediately carried to bed and sleeps. And sleeps and sleeps. Claire manages to get her downstairs for dinner (her favorite, meatloaf) but she soon bursts out into tears claiming it “tastes like ashes.”
During the first part Justine continually stares up into the sky, drawn to a star. John is an amateur, yet quite capable, astronomer but pays little mind to her wandering eye and mind. However when Justine comes to stay, he’s obsessed with the newly discovered planet Melancholia. Hidden behind the Sun for eons, it finally came into view and is headed right for Earth. Claire is nervous about her planet’s fate but John assures her that all scientists agree it will merely pass by, providing an unprecedented spectacle. If the metaphor appears a bit too obvious, it is, but that doesn’t detract from it’s power and beauty.
The film is a fantastic rumination on the feeling of depression. It’s overwhelming, as is immediately clear with Justine. But it’s not a sickness like cancer or another visibly deteriorating disease. Others, including her husband, have trouble really understanding it. They wonder why she just can’t snap out of it despite everyone’s attempts, especially the truly honest attempts by Michael, to help and understand her. Claire seems to be the only one who gets that it’s not just an act, and being related, she’s worried that it’s in her too.
If there’s anything negative to say about the film it’s that it does drag at parts. Coming in at over 2 hours it feels like bits could’ve been shaved off here and there. But that’s a minor complaint as time must drag endlessly for Justine in her melancholic stupor. In the end, Von Trier crafted an excellent film that truly attempts to express not what depression is, but how it actually feels. Of course this has been attempted, sometimes successfully, in films (and art) for as long as people have been making them. Still, there are few that are as honest, original and beautiful as Melancholia.
Showtimes and Tickets