Amongst the furore that followed director Lars Von Trier’s comments at least year’s Cannes Film Festival, his subsequent apology, and supposed withdrawal from the media spotlight, it would be understandable for Melancholia to find itself somewhat lost. If this is indeed the case then it will be a great shame for in Melancholia, Von Trier has arguably produced his least problematic and most fulfilling work of recent years.
With Melancholia, Von Trier has abandoned the jarring minimalism of Dogville or Manderlay, the applied visual chastity of The Idiots, or the unflinching brutality of Antichrist; replacing them with an engaging mixture of operatic opulence and downbeat seclusion. Von Trier combines melodrama with (an admittedly unobtrusive) vision of apocalypse and the results are, for him, positively conventional. That notwithstanding, it’s still a film that begins with the complete and utter destruction of all life on the planet.
Following this, Melancholia is presented in two sections; each named for the film’s principal characters: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the first, Justine and Michael’s wedding reception is blighted by familial and professional strife and, as she starts to show more of the symptoms of depression that will engulf her in the film’s second part, an increasingly absent bride. With her family bickering and her boss badgering her, Justine becomes progressively more withdrawn and isolated; and thus it falls upon Claire’s shoulders to ensure the smooth running of the couple’s “happy” day.
In the second, Justine’s depression has become so extreme as to preclude her from carrying out even the most rudimentary actions: eating, bathing or riding her horse with any degree of competency. Meanwhile the rogue planet Melancholia, which so disastrously made its presence felt in the film’s opening movement, makes its unstoppable way towards earth. Claire becomes obsessed with the approaching giant and, despite her husband’s reassurances, develops a profound fear of the oncoming mass which hangs over her like a ruddy enormous planet.
With his informal, semi-improvisational method of working, Von Trier has always been able to tease the most wonderful performances from his actors. Dunst was rightly lauded at Cannes for her portrayal of a woman trapped by the debilitating grip of depression. Gainsbourg’s performance too is superb; as a woman struggling to deal with her sister’s condition in the neurotic way her own obsession demands, while simultaneously retreating from the grim, encroaching spectre of death.
It’s a film that contains moments of the visually magnificent too. The slow-motion opening sequence will immediately stand-out, but Kirsten Dunst’s private night-time jaunt, to recline, nude, in the luminescent glow of Melancholia is scarcely less poignant.
It’s possible that the almost total lack of inter-personal harmony between the characters will prove to be wearying for some, but it’s a mean gripe; particularly when there’s still so much to like.
Upon its release Von Trier lamented that he had created too polished a film to be interesting. Polished it may well be, but when the results are as agreeable as this, it encourages me only to congratulate the director on his mistake, and to ask him to make another one soon.
By Chris Banks @Chris_in_2D