Directed by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland
Putting his antics aside, von Trier is indeed a talented filmmaker, though I doubt that’s ever been up to much debate. “Melancholia” is his newest film following the heavily controversial Antichrist which enraged and divided audiences due to its graphic imagery. But in “Melancholia”, we have a different type of animal, and I’d argue that it could be equally as controversial–just not necessarily in the classical sense (which involves gratuitous violence and sex in today’s entertainment world). Like a majority of his films (if not all), “Melancholia” stars a female protagonist surrounded by utter gloom and doom. Justine, played amazingly well by Kirsten Dunst, is in a state of extreme depression. Despite her sister’s and her sister’s husband’s excitement and fright over the looming planet, she stays strangely calm and withdrawn. It’s difficult to say what the purpose of the film is, but it’s a daring one, and a pretty good one at that.
A planet has been spotted in the Scorpio constellation, glowing red with energy, then shifting into a variety of other colors. It sounds peaceful enough, so the scientists of the world, along with the media, name it Melancholia. As mundane and insignificant as the events of Earth may be, a wedding is taking place: Justine is marrying Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard. Justine is not as down-to-earth as she appears at first glance. She’s deeply troubled with feelings of depression, fear and anxiety. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is saddled with Justine’s problems. Though she tries to be comforting, you can visibly see the burden that Justine is on her. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) doesn’t even hide it–he’s frustrated because of the amount of money he’s put into the wedding, and with Claire’s preoccupation with Justine. Claire and Justine’s relationship is the most intriguing part of the film, and the most integral.
One of the problems of the film is that the choices of the characters make little sense, and some of the plot points seem particularly ridiculous. Von Trier was never a great writer, but his weaknesses are shown pretty transparently here: his dialogue and the fluidity of the script feel off-kilter. “Melancholia” also teeters towards being comically gloomy, at times. Regardless, it’s definitely well-directed, and the imagery is stellar. In “Antichrist”, the film opened with a rather intense sex scene in slow motion, set to classical music–and similarly in this film, where the soundtrack is a Wagner piece and the end of the world is happening in dramatic fashion. Visceral, memorable images have been the focal point of von Trier’s most recent films. They will certainly leave a significant impression on the viewer.
Kirsten Dunst’s performance is one that should be championed around Oscar time. Von Trier’s notorious history with depression can obviously be felt here; it feels very personal, like his own experiences have been transmitted to the viewer. Dunst’s performance is less vocal, and more internal. Justine’s evolution throughout the film is mesmerizing to behold, all in due part to Dunst. Opposite of her is the always wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg. Claire is the exact opposite of Justine, and their relationship works as the beating heart of the movie. Moving between tenderness and anger, to bitter resentment, to hatred–it all seems to move all over the map, which works for and against the film. There’s one great scene where Claire is trying to encourage Justine to take a bath. I dare you to not be moved.
Despite the stilted dialogue and messy screenplay, “Melancholia” is a good film. It’s problematic, but ultimately it does end up working. Now, the biggest problem in the film is what keeps me from bumping the grade up to a high “B”. As good as the characterizations are, the film still feels a little pointless. We understand the relationship and the portrayal of extreme depression–but what else is there? If, as Justine says, the Earth is such a miserable place, then what’s the purpose of this film? Maybe I just “didn’t get it”, who knows. Lars von Trier probably has a lot to say behind the symbolism and clunky screenplay, but it’s hard to say what it is or if even he knows how to say it.
Story – C+
Acting – A
Technical – B
Overall – B-