Earlier this year, with Tree of Life, Terence Malick looked at the lives of one family and what they meant on a cosmic scale. It’s intriguing, in the same year, to see a filmmaker as different from Malick as Lars Von Trier undoubtedly is tackle the same basic theme.
Melancholia unfolds in three quite distinct parts; a brief prologue and two parts focusing on the two sisters at the centre of the film; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first part focuses on Justine’s opulent wedding to Michael (Alexander Skasgaard), while the second sees Justine, who is sick in some undefined way, staying with Claire, her Husband John (Keifer Sutherland) and their young son. Over both of these narratives looms Melancholia, a planet which has been hiding behind the sun, but which is now approaching and (and this not a spoiler, as it happens in the first five minutes of the film) will soon crash into and destroy Earth. Where Mailck began with the birth of the planet, Von Trier’s jumping off point is its death.
Melancholia begins, as Von Trier’s previous film Antichrist did, with a prologue shot in extreme slow motion, set to classical music. It’s an incredibly effective technique that Von Trier is using; drawing you into the film’s extraordinary imagery with frames that seem almost to be moving postcards from the end of the world. Electricity extends from Dunst’s fingers into the air, Gainsbourg trips as she runs holding her young son, a horse falls, and the world burns. It is extraordinary, hypnotic in its slowness and its beauty. With the fact that we are all well and truly doomed established, Von Trier looks to the last days, with a close up focus on one dysfunctional extended family.
It becomes clear early on that Justine is another of Von Trier’s hugely damaged female protagonists, but this time it’s not clear why she is so damaged. The wedding does offer hints, showing a strange and fractious family whose most normal seeming member (Gainsbourg’s Claire) is visibly, desperately, trying to hold things together for Justine’s happy day. From the off Justine is self destructive; the opening of this section shows her and her fiancé getting stuck in a limo that can’t navigate the winding road to the hotel Claire’s husband (an excellent, clipped, Sutherland) owns, and turning up hours late to their own reception. Von Trier patiently sets up his characters during this first hour, and, in the case of the leads, takes advantage of the luxurious amount of character time he has to slowly peel back their layers. At first Justine and Michael seem like any other young couple in love, but slowly we see how far away Justine is, how disengaged she seems from the world. This does make for the odd obvious bit of symbolism from Von Trier (the photograph, Lars, that’s just lazy), but despite this and the fact that we never get a definitive source of Justine’s disconnection, Kirsten Dunst’s career redefining performance means that every second rings true.
I’ve always liked Dunst, and found her engaging when well cast, but I must admit that I had never expected a performance this deep, this raw, this exposing (in every sense) from her. Justine could easily have come across as a purely selfish character, after all she repeatedly deserts her fiancé and extended family at the wedding, but Dunst lets us see beneath this surface. There is a sense about Justine that she operates at one remove from everyone else; that she’s not quite comfortable in the world, and that results in a moving fragility to the character. There is also a brittle and petulant Justine though, but neither Von Trier nor Dunst attempt to sugar coat her less appealing side.
Remarkable as Dunst is (and she is), Charlotte Gainsbourg is perhaps even better. There are few actresses today, perhaps ever, who do ‘stricken’ quite so well as Gainsbourg, and with Von Trier she’s clearly found a director who brings out the very best in her. Okay, so she doesn’t quite match her lacerating performance in Antichrist here, but she’s flat out fantastic as Claire, who clearly both cares deeply for and is absolutely infuriated by her sister. She’s probably the easiest point of identification; sick with worry when it becomes clear that, at best, Melancholia is going to pass very close by Earth, but still trying desperately to hold her sister together when she turns up obviously very ill. For a part defined by extremes of emotion it’s a remarkably unshowy performance.
The rest of the cast are almost entirely confined to the film’s first half, in which John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are both very funny – Hurt in a bumbling sort of way, Rampling in her familiar ice queen mode – as Justine and Claire’s divorced parents. Alexander Skarsgaard doesn’t have much to do besides be besotted with Dunst and annoyingly handsome, but he does both with aplomb, while Stellan Skasgaard (oddly not playing his real life son’s father, but Justine’s boss) scores with some rather cruel comic relief.
Melancholia – physical and spiritual – hangs over this film, but never (until the ultimate end) consumes it. Von Trier may well agree with Justine’s late assertion that ‘life on Earth is evil’ (it’s hard to tell what, if anything, Von Trier sincerely believes), but he still clearly finds this doomed and evil world remarkably beautiful, and in a very individual way. Much of the film is like a moving painting, from the exquisite opening, to the much discussed scene in which Justine lies naked in the blue light of Melancholia, to the stunning apocalypse. Von Trier’s compositions are always wonderful to look at though, and he emphasises things that are stark and brutal (Justine whipping her horse) with just as much of an eye to the aesthetic as he does the moments of beauty. The surprisingly prevalent CGI is well used, largely to render Melancholia, which is both beautiful and frightening to look at.
Summing up Melancholia, even at the length I’ve taken here, is a challenge. Like Tree of Life many will find it frustrating, and some will find its bleak tone and raw emotion upsetting. Like Antichrist before it I think it’s a film about depression, but more introverted than that film’s screaming pain. I’m sure it will reward further viewings, as rewatching the film will allow you to dig deeper into Justine and Claire’s characters without the stunning visuals taking quite so much of your attention. For me, Von Trier is hit and miss, but with this film he’s continued to mine the rich seam of form he found with Antichrist and made one of his best and most interesting films to date. He continues to be one of the world’s foremost directors of actresses too, and if you’re even a little bit interested in actors you should see Melancholia just to watch Dunst and Gainsbourg’s performances.
Melancholia is an experience. It throws you into a reality only very slightly different from our own in convincing fashion, and I found it both challenging and emotional to the point that the ending left me feeling a little winded. This is what I love in cinema; a film I can’t just shake off, a film that runs around my mind for days later. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again and discovering whether I feel the same about it on a second look.