Notable Cast: Kirstin Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard
Review: Well, good thing I wasn’t in the mood to watch something heavy! That, my dear friends, was sarcasm. When I turned on Melancholia, my mind was nowhere near prepared for the dark journey Lars von Trier was about to send me on. Obviously stated by the title, I knew the subject matter would be all but cheery and bright. Little did I know just how bleak the script would paint our doomed earth, and exploit the poor characters trapped by their fate. Melancholia is two movies in one. You get the plot driven “end of the world” scenario that dictates the character’s emotions, but also the overarching display of the melancholia itself and von Trier’s artistic depiction of depression. As with any von Trier film, his cinematic style is not for everyone. I guarantee either a love or hate experience here, some probably not able to make it past the seemingly 10 minute slow motion photographic introduction that previews the film’s material. Von Trier makes a risky stylistic choice, much like Melancholia itself, but exudes such confidence in execution you can’t help but revel at the dark beauty created by his directorial vision. Fortunately, in the love/hate scenario, the controversial Lars von Trier unexpectedly won me over with this incredibly personal and emotional story riddled with artistic prowess. It’s hard to get excited about such troubled material, but Melancholia is sure to perk up film fans not interested in typical surface value cinema.
Melancholia is broken up into two parts, each named after one of two sisters. Part I: Justine (Dunst) follows a bride on her wedding night as she deals with deeply rooted bouts of depression. Her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) throws a lavish reception party for Justine and husband Mike (A. Skarsgard), paid for by her own loaded husband John (Sutherland). This half focuses mostly on Justine, and how her depression weighs on those closest to her. Justine struggles with keeping a fake grin gleaming as not to let partygoers know her true mental state, but those closest know what unhealthy thoughts are brewing in the otherwise radiant bride. In Part 2: Claire, the story shifts from Justine’s “illness” to Claire’s obsession with a mysterious planet dubbed Melancholia (ohhhhhh) rumored to crash into our earth. John tries relentlessly to calm his wife with scientific knowledge that refute’s the typical doomsday prophets proclaiming the end of our world, but as Melancholia inches closer, Claire’s panic increases. We watch as Claire’s family and Justine deal with what could possibly be Armageddon. Justine’s depression is not forgotten, but instead twisted by the threat of our earth’s destruction.
Kiefer really has to let Jack Bauer mode go…
When discussing Melancholia, one cannot ignore the electric performance Kirstin Dunst delivers. Von Trier transformed this bubbly romantic comedy populating love interest into the abyss of emotions Justine was. Dunst goes completely out of character from films like Elizabethtown/How To Lose Friends and Alienate People/Bring It On/Spiderman (the list rolls on) and takes a stab at some dark material. And I mean “dead of night, under a rock, in the middle of nowhere, can’t even see you touching your own eye” dark. But Dunst owned it. For as sullen and conflicted Justine was, Dunst gave an exuberant performance that commanded the screen. The pain Justine feels and the thoughts that torment her tug at her soul all night, but Dunst portrays a hauntingly convincing facade that covers up these frowned upon feelings for the tortured character. On the flip side, Dunst cuts our hearts open with Justine’s suffering, as we sadly watch her psyche collapse right in front of us. Kirstin showed a lot of maturity taking this role to such depths, finally brushing off that peppy teen stereotype always associated with her personality.
Von Trier’s ambition pays off just as well as Dunst’s. His collaboration with cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro results in beautiful visuals throughout the film. The opening slow motion montage of foreshadowing imagery may very well be enough to give Claro an Oscar nod, but if not the other 2 hours are sure to. All the camera work had a fantastic polish to it, and shots were always perfectly aligned to gain the full mood. Coupled with a brilliant orchestral score by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Richard Hein, the scenes create memorable and lasting moments that should be considered true art. When we see Justine laying naked amongst the foliage in the glowing blue light of Melancholia (the rapidly approaching planet), it looked as if von Trier had taken a snippet from a prestigious art gallery and edited it into the film. The shot of Judith, Claire, and Leo awaiting the impact of Melancholia was on a gigantic scale, as the surface details of the planet became more and more vivid. Von Trier puts Earth’s insignificance in perspective with such a grandios shot, but stunning the senses with allure simultaneously. Such refined elegance equalling Melancholia‘s work was hard to stumble upon anywhere else this year, as it continually one upped itself shot to shot.
And as for von Trier’s screenplay? Justine’s story so perfectly displayed all the different ways to deal with her “illness” and the harm being done to her as a result. John wants her to fake it for everyone else’s sake (Just promise to be happy!), Claire becomes enraged that she is hiding it, Michael wants to fix it, her mother just wants her to deal with it, and her father ignores it. Von Trier so carefully shows how hard it is for someone dealing with such a predicament to cope, and also how hard it is for those on the outside to understand. Then von Trier adds a whole different take on depression by naming a giant blue planet Melancholia, which circles the earth to avoid it, only to come back with a vengeance. Such a brilliant visual metaphor I could write a whole other paragraph for, but my gushing is also killing my word count.
In the end, Melancholia is gorgeous filmmaking. Those who can appreciate true art and a story that strives for a deeper meaning will enjoy yet another Lars von Trier concoction. Dunst gives an effective and powerful performance about a woman struggling with vicious demons while everyone else fears the end of time. This isn’t a “sit down with your buddies and turn a movie on” kind of flick. Melancholia inspires hope that original filmmaking still has some creative wonderment left when in the right hands, pleasing audiences even with the most, well, melancholy of topics.
Final Rating: 9 breakdowns out of 10
Starts off soo promising for our young couple…