My first experience with von Trier was Breaking the Waves. I found his treatment of its lead female character genuinely vile and I jumped on the “von Trier is a misogynist” bandwagon. Since then I have pretty much ignored his output, rather an ignorant thing I suppose. I mention this because going to see Melancholia was a chance to reassess my opinion on von Trier and also witness the performance of Kirsten Dunst who won the best actress award at Cannes. This is really Dunst’s best performance so far. Quite simply she is electric.
Split into two parts Melancholia focuses on two sisters named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine is an advertising copywriter who suffers from massive bouts of depression. She is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at a chateau owned by her sister’s amazingly rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and what should be the happiest day of her life dissolves into a farce as her divorced parents, Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) snipe at each other, her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård) pesters Justine for a tagline to an ad campaign, John’s anger towards Gaby grows and Justine suffers a crushing bout of depression. The second part of Melancholia follows Claire as John intends to celebrate the passing of Melancholia with the family. Claire is convinced the planet will hit but John reassures her and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) that all will be fine. Justine, suffering massive depression, seems fine with the possibility that Melancholia will hit.
The film crosses Festen’s wedding from hell with Armaggedon’s planet smashing CGI minus the hero antics as people accept the end of the world. This is an arthouse apolcalypse that is more interested in examining depression. I mention Festen because the film’s first sequence has an expensive wedding and details of the ceremony laid out for the audience. Then the characters break protocols with Udo Kier’s prissy wedding planner hilariously raging by the end.
This first part is the most interesting as it focuses on depression. We see events through Justine’s eyes so her depression inflects her wedding. We sees her wedding is full of grasping, selfish, petty, vicious people hiding behind fake smiles. By the time this section is over we share the same ideas as Justine and the prospect of Melancholia hitting doesn’t seem so bad.
This part is the most affecting as von Trier weaves his experience of depression into the film. There are numerous sequences where Justine can’t move, she wants to lie down and sleep. She is frequently filmed alone on the dance-floor, a small point of light driving a golf cart in the darkness or just looking devastated.
Kirsten Dunst handles the wedding sequence brilliantly and is very affecting. Seeing that bland smile covering up the desolation Justine feels gets increasingly tough. Events descend into farce and her sister Claire starts to order her around and flash hatred. “It’s your wedding, you’re not even half way through yet,” Claire says and Justine can only whimper, “I know. I have to pull myself together,” before bravely going back to what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life where John growls, “You better be goddamn happy.” She isn’t. She hasn’t been from the start and Justine is left at the bottom of her depression.
The second part sees Claire fall apart as she struggles to cope with the prospect of planetary obliteration while Justine calmly accepts the events. Indeed, she seems to draw power from the approach of Melancholia, basking nude in its glow on a riverbank whilst fondling her breasts like a Rhine Maiden from some 19th Century painting in a startling sequence. Is von Trier delighting in getting a major Hollywood actress nude? I can’t say I blame him. She is luminously beautiful and we too are at ease with the end of the world. Indeed the second part of the film has a wonderful languid feeling as the end of the world approaches.
“The earth is evil, you don’t need to grieve for it.”
The ending of the world is a visceral thing, ending on an image of Justine at peace, looking like a prophet and utter destruction consuming everything. After all she has been proved right.
I have to admit that this second part did not affect me as much but the CGI and performances are very, very good. In fact, music, performances and images are all beautiful with Gainsbourg providing a great foil. What is most powerful is the first part which focuses on depression. Dunst is absolutely magnetic and her performance and dialogue, her delivery of it is very moving. It is hard to deny that the film is very beautiful and the performances are exceptional and von Trier has impressed me with his complex portrait of a woman and depression.
Release date: September 2011
Running time: 135 mins.
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård