Melancholia is the latest from Lars von Trier and the result is a gorgeous, engaging, suspenseful, and even funny film as we watch our protagonist struggle with depression in an excellent turn by Kirsten Dunst.
Lars von Trier starts with the end and things don’t end well. Split into two parts, each titled after the sisters at the center of the film, in its simplest form the film is an apocalyptic picture. That is sort of a lie though as the possibly impending apocalypse doesn’t have any bearing on the first part of the film. The film plants a couple of nuggets for the impending apocalyptic moments of the film in Part One, but it ultimately serves as an intro to the sisters Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Its Justine’s wedding and while everything seems all fine and dandy, things slowly devolves into a wedding from hell. Justine’s psyche also seems far more vulnerable then based on first impressions and it’s her state of mind that becomes a primary focus of the picture.
Minor Spoilers lie inside the next paragraph, skip if you want to stay clean.
The impending planet of doom’s name, Melancholia, might be a bit on the nose when compared to Justine’s state of mind, but the bond that the two form over the course of the picture makes it work. In fact, the film slow plays that connection quite affectively and validates Justine’s state of mind in the end. The revelation that the opening is actually Justine’s visions is satisfying not just because they turn out to mostly be true, but because they validate her catharsis she has been fighting with the whole film.
Part One is engaging, in a train wreck sort of way, as we watch Justine slowly ruin her own wedding night; especially for Claire who planned it. The wedding, a slow burn disaster in its own right that mirrors Part Two wonderfully, is so compelling in part because of the fantastic cast that fills the guests list. John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander Skarsgård, Udo Kier, and Jesper Christensen is quite the lineup and they all get great moments, bringing quite a bit of humor to the proceedings as well. Hurt especially shines and Gainsbourg & Sutherland both do a fantastic work as they seethe under the surface. Even more engaging then the guests is Justine and her battle to just keep a smile over the long line of events of the evening. We are supposed to be seeing Justine on her ‘happiest’ day, and everything seems fine, but the deeper into the wedding and the more people we meet in her life, the more fractured our image of her becomes. Dunst plays it wonderfully and she has probably turned in her best work to date.
Part Two is about paranoia and fear and how the possibly impending collision of Melancholia with Earth affects Justine, Claire, and her family. When we meet Justine again she is in a terrible space and as we see her transform as Melancholia approaches Dunst gets to show off a whole other side to the character. The doom brings her back to life, so to speak, and as Claire crumbles, played wonderfully by Gainsbourg, Justine works to make things ok in this moment of eternal peril. Sutherland’s arc is quite the surprise as well, leading our characters to a fate of nothing left to face but the end.
Lars von Trier has crafted a visually brilliant feature, with the opening scene rivaling Tree of Life’s brilliant imagery, and the pacing is just about perfect. A sub plot involving Justine’s boss seemed a bit forced, Skarsgård almost makes it work, but outside this hiccup a scene is rarely wasted. Trier gets wonderful work out of his actors, per usual, and the three man show of Part Two is able to go toe to toe with the ensemble of the Part One. The suspense and tension he is able to create with the threat of a slowly moving, well relatively, planet moving towards Earth is quite impressive and had me on the edge of my seat. This can also be attributed to the actors’ work, particularly Gainsbourg, but all the pieces working together create a wonderful atmosphere that sucks you right in. Trier and his cinematographer create some of the most exquisite shots of the year and create some incredible lighting that helps the picture standout even further visually. The helicopter shot of the sisters riding in the fog at the end of Part One is particularly stunning. The implementation of the effects work also deserves special mention as they created some absolutely marvelous imagery. From the collision in the opening to the awe inspiring “fly by,” the work is top notch; you can even see the continental shelves getting blown away in the opening. And one last note on the music, the use of Wagner from Tristan and Isolde as the score is also a brilliant choice that fits the picture perfectly.
In the end, Melancholia is one of the finer pictures of the year and another great entry from Lars von Trier. More accessible and without any of the brutality of Antichrist the film is still not for everyone. The film is full of visual splendor and if you are willing to give it a chance there is a lot to get wrapped up in. Whether it is the haunting imagery of Melancholia or Dunst’s fantastic performance, the film will certainly stick with you and that is a sign of greatness.
Melancholia is an A