I know, I know. Even though I’m giving Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ a positive review, so many people out there will loathe the film for being pretentious, long, slow and far from subtle. Unapologetically, I can disregard its lack of tact for its ability to successfully make audiences understand and experience the condition of melancholia. It does this by evoking feelings of fear when things are calm, worry at carefree times, and loneliness despite being surrounded by loved ones. Those are the emotions that not only our characters experience in ‘Melancholia,’ but the audience will as well.
Kirsten Dunst stars as Justine, the role that earned her a Best Actress award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film is broken into two parts. Part One follows Justine just after marrying Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). As the newlywed couple arrives at the ritzy wedding reception, the two are magically happy. But once Justine’s depressive, overpowering mother opens her mouth during a toast, bashing the institution of marriage and disgracing the bride, Justine slips into her own depressed, self-destructive state. By neglecting the party, her husband and all of their many guests, we see her destroy her life in a few shorts hours.
While Justine is still a major player in the second half, Part Two shows how this genetic disorder is triggered in her sister some time shortly after the wedding. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tried to help Justine keep it together at the reception, but the effort was useless. Now, Justine’s melancholia has set in so deeply that she cannot function on her own, so Claire moves her in with her own small family to give her proper care. This is where things get really odd.
A rogue planet cruising around the solar system has been detected and is on a collision course with Earth – or so it seems. Some, like Claire’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland), believe the optimistic scientists who say it will be a “fly-by,” a close call. As the ominous tone of impending doom kicks in, the same damaged gene that causes Justine’s melancholia is activated within Claire. Suddenly, the film isn’t so subtle. “Worlds are going to collide.” “They’re going to be crushed by their melancholia.” Whatever. That’s not the point.
‘Melancholia’ is masterfully crafted. The opening opus (which reveals the end of the film) is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s comparable to a perfectly-shot sequence from a Terrence Malick film. The music, mostly consisting of variations of the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Tristan and Isolde’, is powerful and moving – especially when paired with the tangible tension created by the script and the astonishing images on-screen. And the performances (particularly those of Dunst and Gainsbourg) are indeed worthy of awards.
The film is not without its flaws, and it’s far from being digestible for mainstream audiences. But ‘Melancholia’ is a beautifully bleak, honest and intimate look into depression and other psychological disorders.