Melancholia tells the tale of two sisters who attend a wedding party and soon after receive front row seats for the end of the world. Kirsten Dunst gives a career high performance as a clinically depressed bride and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays her compassionate sister. Certifiable madman Lars von Trier takes up writing and directing duties.
Lars von Trier uses this film as a means of relentlessly and tirelessly examining deep seated depression. Kirsten Dunst effectively portrays Justine, a bride and high powered businesswoman who has been brought low by her condition. We get the feeling that she’s battled these demons her entire life, but now things have reached the breaking point. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland provide a counterweight to this dark protagonist. No, they aren’t annoyingly optimistic, but they are essentially two well adjusted, decent people. Two well adjusted people who have clearly suffered and indulged Justine’s unpleasant and erratic behavior for years.
The first act consists of clinically depressed Justine attempting to cope with her own wedding. During these early scenes – almost every frame infused with warm golds and yellows – Justine is completely out of her element. Her sister and her brother-in-law admonish her. They tell her that they’ve invested a lot of effort and money in her wedding reception. They expect gratitude in the form of her happiness.
Justine, of course, is constitutionally incapable of being happy. She smiles her way through the first half of the reception, but the façade steadily drops as the party trudges on. To the consternation of everyone around, Justine acts out in a variety of inappropriate ways and effectively sabotages her own wedding. Everyone – save her own cuckoo father, played effectively by John Hurt—walks away resenting her.
The second act follows Claire as she attempts to cope with the end of the world. Following the wedding, we find that a new planet, Melancholia, becomes visible in the night sky. It is supposed to pass by Earth, but, this being a Lars von Trier movie, we automatically know it won’t. Everyone is going to die, because that’s just how he rolls. He is a tortured artist after all.
However, as it becomes increasingly apparent to the characters that the Earth is doomed to destruction, Justine becomes almost heroic in her stoicism. This woman, who can’t even smile through her own wedding or bathe herself, suddenly finds herself in her element. She expects the world to go to hell, and when it does, she’s more prepared than the people who spend the first half of the film condescending to her. The person who perhaps resents Justine the most for her condition ends up being the first to buckle under the pressure and in the most cowardly way imaginable. Meanwhile, Justine trudges on, handling the end of the world with the same sad resignation as everything else in her life.
Lars von Trier is no stranger to this subject matter. The troubled director has stated that he is a recovering alcoholic and that he suffers from depression. This movie comes across as his apologia for his condition. Not an apology, mind you, but a passionate defense of his behavior. With Melancholia, Lars von Trier seems to be saying, “I may be an insufferable, morbid, miserable little man, but when the world inevitably ends, I’m the person you want by your side.” Fair enough.
So where does this movie stand in the pantheon of Lars von Trier films? Well, it’s not as objectively great as Dogville, but it’s more easily digestible than Antichrist. In fact, Lars von Trier restrained some of his wilder impulses here. With the exception of one or two tastefully handled nude scenes, this movie could possibly have made the PG-13 cut, making it almost a polar opposite of Antichrist in terms of presentation.
Melancholia is a relentlessly brutal and nasty movie, but one that is well acted, well written, and well directed. Fans of Lars von Trier’s work will like this. This is a solid film but not an enjoyable one by any means. Whether you rent this one or not should really depend on whether you’re in the proper mindset.
If you’re not in the mood for pitch black depression, 21 Jump Street is playing as of the writing of this article, and you should definitely go see that. And no, that’s not even an insult. We at Flesh Eating Zipper love that movie and are going to use every chance we get for the next week or so to plug it; I’m disappointed that I couldn’t beat N to the punch to review it first. However, if you find yourself unable to smile through a explosions-and-dick-jokes comedy this weekend, Lars von Trier understands and has ensured that there’s a movie for your sensibilities, too.