Melancholia is a film divided into two distinct parts, the first entitled “Justine” and the second “Claire”. The titles refer to the two main protagonists of the film, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first half of the Melancholia focuses on Justine who has arrived with her fiancée, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), at Claire’s vast estate to get married. What should be a happy day for the couple turns out to be anything but as Justine gradually distances herself from everyone, especially Michael and Claire, as she sinks into depression. Justine’s divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) also disturb the event with their constant bickering.
The tone of the film changes in the latter half as the film focus on the possible impact of a planet called Melancholia. The planet takes over the place of a prominent star in the sky, shown in the first part, and seems to be heading towards Earth. Justine is now suffering from severe depression and is living with Clarie and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Claire is increasingly worried that the end of the world is near, but John seems convinced that Melancholia will pass by Earth. While John takes pleasure in examining the planet with their son Leo (Cameron Spurr), Claire struggles to not let her fears effect daily routines. As tension rises and emotions erupt it becomes clear that only Justine knows the true fate of Melancholia.
Slowly paced and in a constant state of melancholy, von Trier’s film will definitely test some viewer’s patience. Those who stick with it will be greatly rewarded as Melancholia is a wonderful film that ranks among the year’s best. Melancholia is reminiscent of the Canadian film Last Night in regards to how both films offer a realistic and sombre approach to how certain people process the possibility of the pending apocalypse. While Melancholia clearly defines what may cause the world to end, which is something Last Night excludes, it never resorts to big boisterous scenes that would often be found in this genre. Instead von Trier builds tension through the strain of the family’s emotions. Depression is used both as a catalyst for family conflicts and to unite family members.
The role reversals that Justine and Claire slowly go through is one of the main reasons Melancholia is such a mesmerizing film. Claire is the dominant one who tries to keep up the appearances of a family that has it all together. However, the second half shows that she is merely hanging on by a thread. Whereas Justine seems weak at the beginning, but her eerily calm demeanour in the end only helps to emphasize von Trier’s overall point. The fantastic performances of Dunst and Gainsbourg allow the reversals to work well. Dunst offers her best work to date in a role that demands subtle nuances instead of grand gesture. Gainsbourg continues her strong work of late and ensures that Claire complements Justine perfectly. Kiefer Sutherland is also a treat to watch as the money conscious John but his character is a little too one note in comparison to well rounded Justine and Claire.
The only thing more outstanding than the performances in the film is the gorgeous imagery. The first seven minutes alone are nothing short of brilliant. Lars von Trier expands on slow motion camera techniques he toyed with in the opening of Anitchrist to provide a dreamlike representation of what is occurring in Justine’s mind. Instead of merely relying on stunning images, such as when Justine is walking in her wedding dress while weighed down by roots and vines, von Trier ensures that each scene plays an important role in the film later on. There is much to say about the visual splendour of Melancholia, but the film has great impact if you go in not knowing too much. Though slowly paced, and somewhat of a downer in regards to tone, Melancholia is an outstanding film that offers a unique look at depression and how mankind handles crisis. It is a film that is bound to test viewer’s patience, but it is an exceptional film that rivals the year’s best.
Melancholia is part of our "The Must See List" series.