In Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, two women confront a dreamlike apocalypse – manifested in the form of an oncoming planet and in the murky nature of the human mind. For director Trier, who has often been accused of nihilistic wallowing, Melancholia represents a clear rebuttal. Oh course, there is plenty to be depressed about in this film, including upsetting depictions of mental illness and pervasive marital dysfunction. At the same time, Trier’s operatic story is life affirming. It advocates not only for embracing reality’s onerous darkness, but also highlights the cathartic relief offered by human self-delusion.
Melancholia begins with a series of apocalyptic visions, including planets spinning throughout the cosmic void and a woman in white rushing away from the savagery of nature. It then cuts to a lavish wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who is spectacular), who has just tied the proverbial knot to Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard.
Trier’s camera adopts a handheld perspective during this opening section (the film is divided into two parts), imbuing the wedding scenes with a quality that feels almost amateurish. This docu-drama aesthetic assists, however, with introducing Dunst’s character, intimately capturing her interactions with her older sister Claire (an exasperated Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s obscenely wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland – doing a great Scrooge impression), who has reluctantly agreed to pay for Justine’s and Michael’s wedding.
The wedding party scenes powerfully convey Justine’s chronically depressed state. She is incapable of simply existing in the moment or enjoying her night. She also is highly unpredictable emotionally. We watch in horror as she oscillates from being cold to hypersexual, and from being giggly with her father directly after falling into a near catatonic state.
Dunst captures the fluctuations of her volatile character easily, finally giving an absorbing, emotionally naked and mature performance. Despite having worked in Hollywood since the early-90s, the actress has only rarely found worthy material before this. Melancholia undoubtedly represents Dunst at her best; she is the star of the show here.
Her expressive performance is one of the film’s main highlights, even overshadowing Gainsbourg and Sutherland, who both have given an intense performance or two in the past. Despite their second fiddle status, both actors provide excellent support, with Gainsbourg’s Claire becoming progressively more compelling as the story progresses. Sutherland, who seems to rarely make a film appearance these days, is similarly effective, although his more sensitive scenes do ring a bit false. The specter of Jack Bauer never seems far away.
While Melancholia’s actors are excellent, it is the individuals working behind the camera that make Melancholia function as well as it does. Through the moody photography of Manuel Alberto Claro and the sublime effects work, the film becomes a deeply unnerving depiction of both internalized suffering and cosmological dread. If one were looking to nitpick, the websites the characters visit have the appearance of something from the Internet’s early days, with only rudimentary HTML formatting. It’s a downright laughable image, so obviously inaccurate with today’s technology that one wonders if it’s an intentional joke.
Yet, the true maestro fueling Melancholia’s lyrical energy is Von Trier himself, who is operating here at a peak of his cinematic powers. One of the central ways Melancholia shows its potent strength (and the strong directorial hand behind it) is in how the story’s more fantastical elements compliment the human drama.
The film’s biggest plot point (aside from Justine’s suffering) revolves around a planet called Melancholia that is hurdling through space towards Earth. This somewhat outlandish premise could have easily come off as silly with a lesser director at the helm. Yet, in Melancholia the potential for a planetary collision is intertwined with the dichotomy between the story’s two sisters. Trier’s apocalyptic scope not only allows for him to launch an in-depth study of mental illness, but also probe one of the fundamental qualities of the human experience: the inevitability of our termination.
Even more intriguing is how the film portrays the character’s various reactions towards their impending doom; it’s a portrait both harrowing and surprising. Like Cassavetes beautiful A Woman Under the Influence, Melancholia asks powerful, daring questions about the nature of the human mind, positing that what human culture takes as normal or sane (not to mention what it disparages as ill or unreasonable) is nowhere near black and white. Once Melancholia begins to bear down on Earth for the final time, nearly all of the characters (not just Justine) must face an internal reckoning with their own individual delusions. The results basically suggest that sanity can be a dubious notion, born out of context.
Finally, despite the film taking place in a world teetering on the brink of oblivion, and despite it taking the time to occasionally ruminate misanthropically, Lars’ message through Melancholia seems to be largely one of compassion (a refreshing change). The story makes room for moments where certain characters find peace through imagination – turning the film into a sort of answer to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (reinforced by Lars use of Wagner). This is a profound quality, one beautifully conveyed. Melancholia makes no attempt to hide that death is coming for all of us, but it does point to how we can find catharsis and make things bearable in the meantime.