MELANCHOLIA (15): On General Release Friday 30th September
Lars von Trier, the jolly prankster of film is back with his new film Melancholia, an epic meditation on depression, anxiety and madness set against the cheerful backdrop of the end of the world. In some ways, it’s the perfect companion piece to Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life – both films feature lavish visual set pieces set to classical music but while Malick’s vision depicted the creation of the world, von Trier’s embraces its destruction.
It’s a film of two halves. In the first, Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a seemingly happy bride arriving late to her wedding reception to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). This angers her long-suffering sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy blowhard husband (Kiefer Sutherland) who have staged the wedding at their expansive country estate at great financial expense.
What follows is a complete disaster as the dysfunctional family threatens to implode under forced social convention. The wedding planner (a fantastic Udo Kier) is so disgusted that his plans have been disrupted that he covers his eyes, unable to even look at the bride and Justine’s father (John Hurt) is playful but unsupportive and delights in mocking the occasion’s over-formality much to the maitre d’s (Jesper Christiansen) chagrin.
Meanwhile Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) is aggrieved to be there. Lips pursed she loudly declaims her hatred of weddings and is utterly disdainful of any sense of ceremony (“I wasn’t there when she had her first potty; I don’t need to be there now”). Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) also uses the wedding as an excuse to corner her about a new advertising tagline. All this causes Justine to completely unravel: her sunny disposition clouds over prompting her to vanish onto the ground’s golf course to take an impromptu leak, sulk in the bath during the cutting of the wedding cake and to sexually assault a minor guest.
But one disaster gives way to another bigger one. With the wedding abandoned Justine, Claire, John and their young son Leo are left alone in the mansion while waiting for the planet Melancholia to pass by the earth. The initially pragmatic Claire panics and becomes convinced that the world is going to be destroyed while Justine finds a cathartic release as she embraces what she perceives to be their imminent destruction.
Dunst is excellent and succeeds in creating a character seemingly full of life which peels away to leave nothing but catatonic emptiness. It’s a marvellous and wracking portrayal of depression which hits the nail right on the head – both von Trier and Dunst have struggled with the black dog in the past, experiences which seem vital to Justine’s aching hollowness.
Gainsbourg is also similarly fantastic. She seems to be the more mentally stable of the two siblings but von Trier delights in probing beneath expected surfaces. Just as Justine hides murky depths of depression beneath a bright exterior, Claire rapidly succumbs to panic and there’s a sense that she has much more to lose as she has farther to fall.
Melancholia might be a film about depression but it’s far from gloomy and instead revels in its beautiful cinematography. Slow motion vignettes frame the first act, images which recall classic works of art but there’s something torturous about them – they’re almost too slow, as if they reflect an awareness of impending doom but also a complete helplessness (a reminder of von Trier’s Antichrist in which the worst imaginable disaster happens in excruciating slow-mo).
Elsewhere, Justine basks naked in the cosmic blue glow of the nearing planet – an acceptance which is eerily unnerving. Melancholia possesses a terrifying beauty – one which illuminates a nocturnal golf course with ethereal light and juxtaposes it against the ominous hum of nearing disaster.
For its subject matter, it possesses a dry, sardonic wit which actually makes it very funny. The first half in particular is full of barbed humour – Rampling’s biting cynicism, Hurt’s tomfoolery, Udo Kier’s hilariously over-the-top reactions. But even when disaster looms, there’s the sense of theatrical excess which diffuses any sense of actual depression on the part of the viewer. I suspect that even through its bombastic comments on human futility (“Life on earth is evil”) von Trier is having a little chuckle to himself – a depressive’s self-deprecating laugh at depression’s hyperbole.
Like The Tree Of Life, Melancholia is unashamed in its grandiosity and ambition and will almost certainly divide opinion (von Trier is a director who delights in causing arguments). Some will hate its art-house sensibilities (even though von Trier said he didn’t like it because it came too close to commercial aesthetics) but those who can emotionally connect to Melancholia will find it a masterpiece – a reflection on depression on a huge scale that can only be dwarfed by the coming apocalypse.