Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgard and Stellan Skarsgård
Lars von Trier is a good example of the auteur theory at work today. His films are very divisive, relentlessly punishing and emotionally heartbreaking, but at the same time there’s this lyrical beauty to them, looming in the background, in terms of the human condition and its extremes. Even at his most basic and simplistic, stripping away the limitations of cinema with his Dogme 95 films, von Trier tries to nail down the limits of human emotion. In his new film, “Melancholia,” von Trier evolves as a filmmaker on a technical level but still refines his curiosity in pain, pleasure and depression, keeping in mind the villainy of humanity and nature playing against each other.
The film is separated into two parts, the first dealing with the wedding of Justine and Michael, a very attractive young couple played by Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård; and the second part dealing with the Justine’s depression and her sister, Claire’s, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, inability to understand and treat her. All of this while a mega planet called Melancholia is on a collision course towards Earth, bringing forth the end of the world. What is interesting to examine and discuss is Justine’s depression and paranoia. We get a sense of this happy couple and their happy lives, and as the film unfolds, we see Justine’s psyche, or wall, chip away piece by piece as if what is inside is to be guarded at all times. Her beautiful wedding dress, glorious hair and magnificent makeup serve as a facade to the world around her, and as the outside world pokes to get inside, these constructs strip away like an egg shell. Justine copes with her world falling apart by resorting to her animal instincts. These scenes are very haunting and disturbing and will stay with the film’s viewers long after the film is over.
As the film shifts into the second part, it takes its attention to Justine’s sister, Claire. Claire is happily married to John (Kiefer Sutherland) and the mother of Leo (Cameron Spurr). Their life is affluent, luxurious and, ostensibly, loving. The only problems in their lives, outside of a mega planet speeding towards Earth, is their approach in raising Leo, Claire being more spiritual and John being more pragmatic, and serving as Justine’s caretaker after her nervous breakdown at her wedding. The shifting tone feels like going from Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” to Alain Resnais’ “Last Year At Mariendbad” from hour to hour. Although I feel this shift is natural, there is a slight tinge of a jarring feeling but I feel von Trier hides it with the cinematography and the score, which is just as masterful and beautiful in respect to the film.
Nothing in “Melancholia” is spelled out for the audience, Lars von Trier is a much smarter filmmaker than that, but I feel all the clues and evidence of the brilliance are present in the film. Also serving as a clever way to deal with the emotion of the film and the narrative than focusing on the outcome of the end of the world, von Trier does away with all of that within the first fifteen minutes of the movie. In a very impressive sequence, von Trier gives us all of the events of the film including the destruction of the world in a super slow motion, epic sequence that can only be described as purely cinematic. He played with these techniques and style in his 2009 film, “Anti-Christ,” and brings it to a more mature plain in “Melancholia”. So as a member of the audience, you’re not thinking about will they or won’t they survive or outwit the end of the world, you know definitively, they don’t, but rather, it is more interesting to see how these people interact and cope with their own demise and Justine’s depression and nervous breakdown.
Now, getting down to the performances of “Melancholia,” which is considerable considering the amount of punishment these actresses have to endure to, firstly, convey what von Trier is going for, and secondly, achieve the level of emotional resonance within the audience. Kirsten Dunst is simply magnificent! She has never been better in a movie and, dare I say, this is the best of Kirsten Dunst you’ll get in theaters. You can see her get lost in the character of Justine from start to finish, solely for the bookend scenes and the smile of her face. At the beginning, her smile is to show the sheer joy and excitement of being just newly wed, to at the very end, her smile shows the acceptance of her life despite the catatonic depression and dementia. The pain, grief and sorrow being locked inside, ready to explode in a mad and animalistic outbursts is precise and visionary. This serves as a wonderful emotional arc. What can be grounded in her performance is Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Claire, Justine’s sister. Gainsbourg’s impeccable performance gives Justine’s bewilderment the emotional punch to the audience as we see her through Claire’s eyes, wanting so desperately to simply “fix” her ailing sister. Partly why Dunst’s performance works so well is Gainsbourg’s support and empathy. Her frustration is the audience’s frustration.
As much as I feel “Melancholia” is Lars von Trier’s most accessible and conventional film, it’s still very much a Lars von Trier film. Complete with all the themes, rituals and style he likes to put in his films. And as much as people like to think of von Trier as some sort of misogynist monster, always punishing his female characters at every turn, I feel the complete opposite. This is something you might see on the surface, but I feel von Trier treats all of his characters in this brutal manner, both the male and the female. It feels like no one is clean and everyone is copable for the evils of humanity, von Trier just always has women as the main roles.
This is one of the best movies of the year and is not to be missed. The theatrical experience is paramount in the enjoyment of “Melancholia,” as it serves as a visual spectacle and emotional and heartbreaking narrative about the end of the world. This is Lars von Trier’s masterpiece and the culmination of his past work. It feels like all of his past films led him to make “Melancholia” one of the best films of the year, which is a statement I don’t use lightly. This movie is a must see!
Melancholia opens in New York City and Los Angeles on November 11th and in a limited release on November 18th.