Directed By: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr
As someone with an appreciation for a more literal approach to storytelling, taking to Lars von Trier’s style of work has never been easy. However, with Melancholia, von Trier finds an absolutely impeccable middle ground, providing the audience with a uniquely sensible tale, but not holding back when dousing the piece with his authorial expressivity, giving us something that’s tremendously stirring.
Broken up into two sections, the first part of Melancholia focuses on Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Right after marrying Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), the newlyweds head out to her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) estate for a majestic night of fine food, lavish décor and wholesome traditions. Justine should be as happy as ever, especially when her boss and husband’s father, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), turns his toast into a job promotion announcement, but just a short while into the party, a familiar predicament taints the happiest night of her life, a chronic case of depression.
Part two is dedicated to Claire, her family and a planet called Melancholia. A planet that once hid behind the sun, Melancholia is now on the move, missing Mercury, Venus and, hopefully, Earth. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), assures her the planet will pass right by as scientists suggest, but a foreboding sensation still looms.
Melancholia is comprised of two parts and those portions focus on very different subject matter, but von Trier does an flawless job fusing them together, making this feature feel as whole as any. Part of this has to do with character development as the film’s main players almost transcend the events, or at least shape them. A 15-minute introduction consisting of a regal orchestral score and stirring imagery hinting at what’s to come solidifies the tone. From there we meet Justine and Michael, fresh from the ceremony and on their way to the party. Rather than drown us in a lengthy conversation detailing the duo’s past and plans for the future, we get a sense of their dynamic through a limo mishap.
This is a technique von Trier puts to use incessantly from beginning to end. He builds incredibly detailed and dynamic characters, but without a single hackneyed tactic. Everything we learn about them comes through events and actions that feel plausible, but are things we’ve never seen before. And, even with all of the of the character development, all of the main players are still incredibly intriguing. They’re changing and adapting (or not) to every single situation and their thought processes are fascinating to track.
Part of this stems from stellar performances. Every actor on the roster is particularly committed to his or her role and von Trier, as an actor’s director, simply knows how to get extremely honest performances. Dunst certainly shines as Justine, making her rather volatile and unpredictable yet showing off enough of her personality to give the audience access to her train of thought. Equally as poignant is Gainsbourg. Between the two sisters, Gainsbourg’s Claire is the one that’s more relatable and comforting, traits put to use in both sections of the film. In the first, Claire is a source of comfort, basically holding Justine’s hand through the reception. Then, when we hit part two and the fear of Melancholia cracks Claire’s composure, it makes the potential disaster even more unsettling.
Then there’s a slew of supporting characters that make an impressive impact. Of the bunch, Sutherland tops the list as he’s allotted the most screen time and puts it to good use, functioning as admirable support for Claire and even delivering quite a bit of the film’s humor. Alexander Skarsgård will break your heart as the loving and devoted husband trapped in a situation far beyond his control while both John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling create unforgettable characters and help shape Dunst’s, as they portray her rather unusual parents. Udo Kier also deserves some credit as the wedding planner, a particularly understated role, but one that’s credited with the majority of the first portion’s laughs.
As for the technical elements, von Trier clearly thought this piece through thoroughly and that effort is well represented on the screen. The set design is stellar, every detail in its proper place and with the power to say something about someone. Then von Trier puts his actors on that set in impressively stimulating formations. Every action is Melancholia serves a purpose and they all bear a somewhat dance-like quality. However, everything is still wonderfully realistic. The combination is mesmerizing.
Best of all, Melancholia isn’t something you won’t be able to shake after the credits role, but, unlike the title suggests, you won’t walk out of this one unhappy in the least. Despite the dismal circumstances, there’s something downright rousing about the material. Rather than leave the theater contemplating characters or perhaps even the odds of a rogue planet threatening Earth, you’re left with this inexplicable overwhelming sensation, something that’s impossible to categorize. Simply put, Melancholia is a film that you can feel and that in itself is a commendable accomplishment.