It’s the end of the world and Lars von Trier knows it. He probably relishes the apocalyptic notion, but the Danish provocateur’s newest film Melancholia is an operatic opus that manages to illicit a grand feeling of nausea, hopelessness, and, of course, melancholy. Von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, was more graphic, but what Melancholia lacks in graphic sex and organ mutilation, it makes up for in sheer atmosphere and tone.
The film is divided into two parts, each named for the respective sister it focuses on. The first part focuses on Justine, played ethereally by Kirsten Dunst in her best role in years, a woman who has just gotten married and is doing what nearly everyone does to some extent: wearing a mask. Her sparkling façade is done only to please her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), her distant and frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes for Antichrist), and her edgy brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Behind that mask of lies, she’s a mess. And it seems that she’s been a mess for a while. In the posh castle where her wedding party is being held, as she loses her grip, domestic chaos ensues, slowly marring the entirety of not only the wedding but of her life. This is, of course, representative of how depression can ruin one’s life so easily.
In the second half, dedicated to Claire, the end of the world is coming in the form of a fly-by planet called Melancholia. While Claire and her scientist husband become more and more worried, Justine remains serene, her pessimism and cynicism being completely manifested in the form of complete calmness. Claire breaks down; she is unable to handle the stress, but the strained relationship between the two sisters actually becomes stronger. Estranged though they may be, and as cynical as Justine, through her depressing, has become, this unified sense of doom brings the two together.
If you’ve seen any of the other films that the Danish auteur has made, perhaps most scarringly Antichrist, von Trier relishes suffering. He wants to make the audience suffer just as much as the characters he creates. This isn’t for pure maliciousness, but to accentuate drama and emotion, to place the audience in the situation of the characters on the screen.
Melancholia is driven by its stunning performance by Kirsten Dunst. Having made a strong debut as a questionably happy teenager in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, the depressing subject matter of Melancholia is nothing new for the actress. It is a brave performance, one where we see Dunst at her most vulnerable, probably that we’ve ever seen of an actress on the silver screen (von Trier has a way of getting his actresses to become completely naked on the screen, in more than one way). Dunst has dealt with the pains of clinical depression and to go back and recreate that feeling as a performance is an extraordinary thing. Bravura is the word that best describes the performance, not wrought with the same kind of overacting that maybe other actresses would have given it. It’s honest. The kind of vulnerability that Dunst shows on the screen as a fragile, broken individual is almost like sex: we see her naked; we see her scars; we see who she is without the distraction of the façade she shows at the wedding party.
The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Stellen and Alexander Skargard playing father and son, the latter of whom is marrying Justine. The trouble is that von Trier has put so much effort into putting and illustrating the depth of Justine, Claire, and Claire’s husband, the other characters seem repellent and flat in comparison. They aren’t as thoughtless as the “after thought” character, but they aren’t as heady. It is the same kind of problem that was actually avoided in Antichrist, where von Trier only dealt with two characters; He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and one he did not avoid in his minimalist, Our Town-esque Dogville, with a cast of nearly 20 actors. Von Trier is a technical genius, an artist who can make every frame mean something, but his characterization often falls short when it comes to the supporting players. That being said, it does leave more room for the leads to not only shine, but nearly explode with talent and pathos.
Kirsten Dunst’s bravura performance was only a surprise insofar that the amount of vulnerability she showed was rather unprecedented for what some think of as a fairly mainstream actress (which is an incorrect evaluation in my mind), but the real surprise here may have been Kiefer Sutherland’s angry, frustrated brother-in-law. His scientific mind and refusal to tolerate Justine’s troubles makes him instantly unlikable, one who continues throughout the film to say things like “Do you realize how much this [wedding party] cost me? I hope you’re happy.” It is said without any kind of sympathy. His virility was shown frequently on 24, but it was with a government state of mind. Here, it’s just him and just his personal reservations and problems. It’s a very strong performance, one that is just as good as any of the angry male characters that von Trier has written.
Gainsbourg is also not a surprise. She was just as emotionally stripped and naked as Dunst, only in von Trier’s Antichrist, but here she shows a different kind of suffering. The crazy and insanity that Claire goes through is one of stress, not grieving or mere psychosis. Gainsbourg, whom I believe should get more notice in the United States, is able again to illicit emotion in the audience and portray pain like no other contemporary actress.
Unsurprisingly, von Trier’s Melancholia is a visual feast. Utilizing the hand held techniques of Dogme 95, the cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro is glorious, sumptuous, and ultimately, hypnotic. One is always surprised at how the visuality of a film can still remain incredibly beautiful even though it uses a handheld camera. The prologue and the grand finale, though, are the most gorgeous to see. The Prologue of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” sweeps the screen with emotion just as the earth ends. It’s a swell of images and it makes for one hell of a beginning.
One could easily write more and more on Lars von Trier’s newest film. It may not be as intense or shocking as his other films, and it is comparably rather tame, but it is perhaps his most accessible. Regardless of accessibility or graphic content, the film stands as a piece of art, one that can be interpreted in many different ways (The first half may be a critique of upper -class bourgeois lifestyle, more nastily satirical than Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. The second may be of familial construct, the bond that unites family but also that breaks it.) Its exploration into both Justine and Claire is the film’s focal point. The way von Trier constructs his films is inventive and original and the performances he gets out of his actors is unbelievable. While the metaphor may have been rather obvious, who knew that depression manifested as the end of the world could be so beautiful and, yes, so full of melancholia.