Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard and Charlotte Rampling
Release Date: November 11, 2011
To watch Terrance Malick’s distinct, creative rendering of the beginning of the universe in The Tree of Life and then experiencing Lars von Trier‘s incendiary vision of the universe plummeting to eventual debris is to witness two artists displaying unseen audacity as they tackle subjects (beginning and end of times) that once seemed un-filmable. The caustic, operatic, haunting and celestial opening shots to von Trier’s Melancholia, which are set to the Tristan and Isolde Prelude in slow motion, depict a world, from an intimate perspective, gradually proceeding to its imminent demise. These horror-laden images, which are intimations of what will transpire later in the film, are surpassingly beautiful and an overwhelming indicator of the astonishing horror and gloom that will pervade the entire film. It is as if we are plunging into a much disagreeable state, one that anticipates the most tremulous and hectic occurrences to transpire. Melancholia is a headfirst dive into an abyss that assuredly glorifies the confusion and paranoia that is impetuously at work within the human mind. And by the film’s end, we realize that Melancholia is a remarkable and grim testimony of human frailty.
With exceeding rapidity the film gets gloomier and gloomier. It is hard to imagine that one scene can upstage another in ghastliness, but Melancholia gives ample proof. Here is a film that not only invites but also unceasingly encourages its viewers to plunge into the depths of von Trier’s despair (he admits that he was battling with severe depression while in the process of making and writing this movie). And melancholia is what he undoubtedly felt, and he inflicts the same persistent depression onto some of his characters, maybe to see how other certain individuals can cope with it. But also, melancholia refers to a planet that is slowly approaching Earth. Some scientists are in agreement that melancholia will just miss colliding with earth, and others believe, as von Trier does, that the approaching planet will indeed contact earth, resulting in a cataclysmic end to all humanity. Melancholia hides behind the moon and sun, always showing itself, always lingering up in the sky, always there, unable to ignore it. Probably similar to the depression von Trier experienced.
There are two individuals of whom von Trier inflicts with immense mental pain and confusion. The first (the film is split into two parts and filmed at times with a shaky camera to evoke realism) is Justine, played with an abundance of emotional feeling by Kirsten Dunst, who won this year’s Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. She is initially happy as we first witness her. It is her wedding day and she has the misfortune of being stuck in a limo that is trying to weave its way through a narrow path so it can get her and her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) to their reception. Her ostensible happiness immediately begins to wane after they get out of the limo. An emotional distress unexpectedly visits her and it surpasses her endurance, and eventually consumes her, overwhelming her.
Justine is in constant consternation throughout the entire reception. She is incapable of partaking in the rituals of a wedding and unable to converse with all who are present. Her sudden depression makes her a walking zombie, ignoring the lavishness of the reception, which takes place in a magnificent mansion thanks to her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) for planning it, and ignoring her husband.
After the long reception, morning begins. Claire, we learn, has been keeping tabs on the intruding planet that is melancholia. John, being a learned, wealthy scientist, insists that Earth is safe. But the madness Claire experiences isn’t alleviated by John’s studious research. As Justine descended into delirium in “Part 1,” so does Claire in “Part 2.” She prepares for an inevitable doom, trying to explain to her son that the world will soon end.
The artistic maneuvering that von Trier displays during the extended wedding reception (the entire first half of the movie), by weaving in and out of particular conversations while also trying to pry into the soul and mind of Justine, is a spectacular exhibition of keen insight. This extravagance that he captures in these scenes is a stark contrast at what he captures in “Part 2” of the film, which is an intimate portrait of a family living in an exquisite mansion being scared into paralysis. If “Part 1” displays the inevitability of craziness when one isn’t able to comprehend what it is that is actually causing the chaos, then “Part 2” displays the inevitability of craziness when one knows what is causing the chaos.
The principle aim of von Trier is to make the horrid and resentful as blatant as he is capable, while in his process of doing so, draping the despairing in an aura of beauty that creates an alluring paradox. The results are staggering. We have no qualms as Melancholia descends deeper and deeper into degradation. Without a doubt von Trier’s films have bleak subject matters (reference Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark or Breaking the Waves), but he possesses an ability that allows him to raise them to art by injecting in them an aesthetic wonderment that causes our minds to unwillingly submit to their beauty.
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****