Film Review: “Melancholia”

by Jason LeRoy on November 11, 2011

Kirsten Dunst in MELANCHOLIA

starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellen Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr

written and directed by: Lars von Trier

MPAA: Rated R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language

I think Lars von Trier needs a hug, you guys. While his best-known films – Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville – have always been dark and somber, there is usually some element of triumph or release at the end, however unconventional. They’ve also featured storylines in which, you know, things actually happen. Then, in the throes of depression, he made the notorious and unfairly maligned Antichrist (2009), which followed a couple mourning the sudden death of their infant son on a gradually intensifying journey into grief. And something tells me von Trier isn’t totally out of his depression yet, because Melancholia echoes Antichrist in a number of ways. Most noticeably, the films have identical pacing: they open with a rapturously beautiful prologue, transition into a fairly engaging exposition, slow to a point of near-stasis, stay there for a very long time, then slowly lurch into action just in time for an unsettling finale.

After the operatic prologue (which showcases the stunning work of cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro), we begin the first part of the film, titled Justine. It takes place over the course of a lengthy evening wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her sweetly hopeful groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Justine is doted on by her harried sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), to the dismay of Claire’s impatient husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The reception gets off to a humorously bumpy start when Justine and Michael discover their obscenely over-sized limo is unable to navigate the narrow path to the grand estate at which the party is being held. They arrive very late, but the guests rally and the reception commences. This sequence is remarkably antic and lighthearted for von Trier, all family foibles and a furious wedding planner (Udo Kier) who would not seem out of place at the Pandora Vanderpump nuptials.

We see a series of toasts, including one from Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), Justine’s boss at the ad agency at which she works as a copywriter (haaay!), and Dexter (John Hurt, whom I will forever mistake for Ian McKellen), Justine’s drunkenly jovial father. But then, when she is denigrated in her ex-husband’s toast, Justine’s mother (a glorious Charlotte Rampling) rises from her seat, and oh boy, this woman should make all the wedding toasts, because she begins to spew the most marvelously elegant bitterness this side of Dorothy Parker. This seems to pull a very dark trigger in Justine; she has perhaps inherited some of her mother’s fatalism, and after hearing her comments, Justine finds herself increasingly incapable of resisting the depression which we gather has sabotaged her periodically throughout her life. She sinks deeper and deeper into the incapacitation of clinical depression, as Michael and Claire try desperately to keep her afloat. Then, at one point in the evening, Justine notices a strange new star burning in the sky.

The second part of the film, Claire, picks up an unspecified amount of time later. Justine returns, presumably from some sort of hospitalization, to stay at the estate with Claire and John, as well as their young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr). Since the events of the film’s first part, the star Justine noticed on her wedding night has been discovered to be Melancholia, a previously unknown planet that has emerged from behind the sun and is on an orbit that could possibly send it crashing into Earth. Claire is consumed by this possibility, but John is casually dismissive of her fears; he insists that Melancholia will merely pass by, creating a once-in-a-lifetime sight as it looms ever-larger on the horizon and then soars majestically overhead. There is great cruelty in this either/or scenario: either a stunning celestial event, or the Earth will be destroyed.

This is ultimately a Bergman-esque character study of the strained relationship between two sisters, and the apocalyptic backdrop is just von Trier’s characteristically overblown device through which to understand their relationship. While Justine represents depression, Claire is very much grief. Justine seems to welcome the end of the world; in one gorgeous sequence, Claire catches her reclining nude next to a brook in the middle of the night, bathing in the ominously seductive blue light of the deathly planet (Dunst’s nudity in this film calls to mind Ellen Barkin’s advice as her mother in Drop Dead Gorgeous: “If they ask you to take your top off, get the money first.”). Meanwhile, Claire is engulfed by anticipatory grief at the thought of oblivion, the very same idea which entices her sister. She mourns for Justine, and especially for her own son, that she may never be able to watch him grow up. We wonder if Justine and Claire will reconcile before the end of the world, but this being a von Trier film, we also wonder if it even matters.

So yeah, it’s not light stuff. Neither is the responsibility that rested on Dunst and Gainsbourg to convey the substance of their characters, which is to say, the substance of the film. Von Trier has always been adept at showing rather than telling, and that has perhaps never been more true than here. Very little is said or explicitly revealed; everything that we learn about the characters, we learn from observing tiny mannerisms and flickers of expressions as they interact with each other. We never meet a conveniently expository character to tell us, “Oh, well, you know Justine has been like this ever since…” or “Claire has been worrying about Justine ever since…” It will certainly be too oblique for many audiences, but that objection takes a distant second place to the stultifying slowness that coats the film like molasses in its middle stretch.

It is wonderful, then, that we have the revelatory performances of Dunst and Gainsbourg to narrate the emotional arc of the story for us. Dunst, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her work here, exquisitely presents us with the full range of Justine; we see her at her happiest and most functional at the beginning, then we walk with her into the first quicksand steps of depression; by the time we meet her in the second part, she has vanished completely into incapacitated immobility. She will certainly test your compassion for the depressed. Dunst has always been a gifted actor, and after a powerhouse performance alongside Ryan Gosling in the little-seen All Good Things last year, hopefully this film will fully restore her career. Gainsbourg, as in Antichrist, is jaw-dropping and devastating. She evokes grief and horror with a naturalistic immediacy shared by few others of her generation.

Melancholia is curiously suggestive of a number of other films that have been released this year: it has the grandeur of The Tree of Life, the complicated family triangle of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the new-planet metaphysical contemplation of Another Earth, and the apocalyptic paranoia of Take Shelter. And, as with any von Trier film, it is not without its unexplained quirks. For instance, the accent-blind casting of Dunst, a blonde American, as the youngest daughter of a brunette British family. Penelope Cruz was originally attached to the role of Justine, which may have been even more distracting.

There is also the matter of technology; the film takes place in the present day, and Gainsbourg is seen using a computer, but when the moment of truth approaches, no one so much as twiddles the knobs on a ham radio to hear if there are any reports about this looming cataclysmic event. There is also the usual impression that von Trier views conventional human social interaction from the vantage point of a space alien. But for his fans, none of this will matter. Melancholia is entirely too soporific to win him a new audience, but the patient and faithful will be rewarded. If nothing else, it is a towering showcase for cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro and the acting talents of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Melancholia opens in San Francisco today.

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