Lars von Trier destroys the Earth in the opening moments of his new film, Melancholia. The destruction of the Earth, in beautiful slow motion, comes at the end of a series of gorgeous, hyper slo-mo shots that recall the opening of Antichrist. These shots are moments of time in the end of the world, physically and emotionally. Many of the shots are representations of the emotional states of the characters later in the film, while some are heightened versions of the reality of Earth’s end. All are stunning and deserve to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable.
The film is then split into two parts, Justine and Claire. The first part is about the wedding reception of Justine, played with raw vulnerability by Kirsten Dunst. The reception is ruined as Justine’s clinical depression slowly destroys her over the course of the evening. Dunst truly is incredible here and von Trier’s script gives her so much to work with. It is the most honest and heartbreaking depiction of severe depression I have ever seen, but it doesn’t end there; von Trier is just as interested in how others deal with the depression. And so we have her new husband, played by a highly generic Alexander Skarsgard, trying to buy her happiness by showing her the plot of beautiful land he has purchased. We see her besotted father (a great, great performance by John Hurt) ignoring her pain. We see her boss (Alexander’s dad Stellan, not playing his dad here!) totally oblivious to what she’s going through and trying to force her to work on her wedding night. Her brother-in-law, a surprisingly good Kiefer Sutherland, tries to bargain with her, offering her an expensive party in exchange for happiness. Her nasty mother, played with vicious clarity by Charlotte Rampling, is a vision from the future warning her what she will become.
And then there’s Claire, her sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She tries so hard to work around Justine’s depression, but in the end she is worn down by it. ‘Sometimes I hate you so much,’ she spits at her sister, frustrated at the way the mental illness keeps them apart. It’s sad and it’s honest; while the two actresses don’t look at all like they’re related (how did Dunst end up with that accent in that family anyway?) they play off of each other with subtle grace. A real relationship like this is rocky and filled with love and hate, and Dunst and Gainsbourg are perfect.
Justine’s section is actually surprisingly funny. von Trier finds many moments of comedy, black and otherwise, and weaves it through the reception. He has a wry, detached view of the silliness of the rituals of marriage and of how seriously everyone takes having a good time. Udo Kier is a special delight as the world’s most expensive wedding planner who won’t even look at Dunst once it becomes clear she has ruined what he perceives as HIS big evening.
That first part hurtles to a world destruction of a very personal kind. The second part gets much more literal. Where Justine suffers from depression, Claire suffers from extreme anxiety and the sudden appearance of a new planet, Melancholia, which is on a ‘fly-by’ path with Earth, doesn’t help. Justine has collapsed into a complete, debilitating depression while Claire freaks out about the possibility of Melancholia and Earth colliding. Meanwhile her husband, good old Keifer, is a scientific rationalist and is ecstatic about the approach of the new planet. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, he says, and he fully believes the scientists who say Melancholia will harmlessly pass us by.
By showing the destruction of the Earth right at the beginning of the film, von Trier establishes Melancholia as guaranteed doom. In many ways the planet functions as a metaphor for death, an unavoidable conclusion. In the Claire segment he examines the way these three people - the depressive, the anxious and the rationalist, all deal with the inescapable catastrophe of Melancholia.
Where Antichrist was a work of fury, Melancholia feels more subdued… and weirdly sweet. At one point Dunst, deep in depression, says that the Earth is evil and no one will miss it - a sentiment familiar to fans of Antichrist - but von Trier doesn’t invest that statement with the venom he put in his last film. While Melancholia involves the utter destruction of the planet it doesn’t pack the gut-punch of Antichrist. There’s a wistful sadness at the end of the film (the movie ends with one of the most powerful and beautiful final images I have seen), but I didn’t stagger out of the theater upset. There’s almost a gentleness to Melancholia, an understanding that von Trier has towards the characters. It’s not as emotionally devastating as Breaking the Waves, and it won’t move you to instant tears like Dancer in the Dark, but it will move you and touch you very deeply.
The two halves of the film feel very distinct. Justine is filled with shaky close-ups while Claire has an icy blueness to it; what’s interesting is that these styles feel like they should be transposed. But that would be obvious, and the jittery camerawork in Justine gives an energy to that half, while the composed coldness of Claire makes Gainsbourg’s slow panic meltdown feel all the stronger.
Gainsbourg is amazing in the film, but she ends up overshadowed by the truly bravura performance from Dunst. There’s a lot of snark towards Dunst out there, but the truth is that when challenged and in the right material she is capable of amazing things. She delivers amazing things in this film, living Justine’s pain while also letting us understand why the people in her life love her. She makes Justine’s emotional agony very real, but also digestible. Dunst isn’t doing emotional porn here - which maybe could cost her come Oscar time, when a big, melodramatic scene is worth more than two hours of subtle, subdued and honest acting.
A couple of weeks ago I saw another ‘Oh hey, here’s a brand new planet!’ movie, Another Earth. These two films are exceptionally dissimilar in both quality and intent, but what struck me about Melancholia versus Another Earth is how real it is. Another Earth is a movie where the other planet is only a metaphor, and no one involved has bothered to consider in what ways a rapidly approaching planet would physically impact our own. von Trier’s film, however, contains a verisimilitude that renders Melancholia more than just a metaphor. The physical effects of the approaching planet are, of course, metaphors in and of themselves, but they also give this film a sense of science fiction seriousness missing in Another Earth.
That science fiction seriousness is a nice touch (I really think von Trier handles the parceling of information about Melancholia about perfectly, making it feel concrete without bending the narrative over to fit things in), but the real honesty of the film is emotional. von Trier’s empathy towards these sisters is deep, but he doesn’t let that cloud his film with sentimentality. His treatment of depression is honest and thoughtful and fair. Melancholia is a beautiful film tinged with sadness, but it left me feeling exhilarated about the state of the art of cinema and science fiction.