Split in to two parts Melancholia is the new film from the ever divisive Danish art house provocateur Lars Von Trier. Melancholia is clearly a companion piece to Von Trier’s previous film, Antichrist with which it shares not only several themes but also a similar stylistic approach. The opening scene, in which we witness the end of the world, again utilises the distinctive super slow motion of the Sony Phantom camera so beautifully employed in the Antichrist prologue.
At an undisclosed country manor hotel we are introduced to Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. It is the day of her wedding and everyone around her is determined she’s going to appreciate the effort they have gone to. Several guests allude to Justine’s evidently long-term issues with depression by constantly asking her if she is happy. Her sister Claire (the always excellent Charlotte Gainsbourg), clearly the more balanced and composed of the two, does her best to ensure proceedings run smoothly, but as the evening progresses Justine’s psychological state begins to worsen. When she becomes aware of a new planet in the sky, Melancholia, all roads lead to, well….melancholia.
Cinematographically Melancholia bares the typical Von Trier hallmarks of free flowing, hand held camera work with which he has become synonymous ever since he abandoned the precision of his early works noting “nobody can ever truly master framings”. But here he takes things perhaps a step too far, the movement is so abrupt it creates an aesthetic that is beyond realism. The digital shakes combined with zooms and jump cuts take you almost out of the drama itself and into some kind of Goddard inspired realm in which we become conscious of the technique, laying bare the device. Although fine acting both in lead and support is present here, the ensemble at this point feels rather wasted. The whole dysfunctional affair feels heavily influenced by fellow–Dane Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. But whilst that was an inspired experiment in Dogme liberation, here we are subjected to pure tedium, occasionally interrupted by moments in which Von Trier allows his brilliant eye for intimate observation to surface. Although these moments are far too transient to sustain such mess.
Part two is more of a balanced character study in which Von Trier allows performance to shine. Justine has, at this stage, lapsed into near catatonic depression, handled exquisitely by Dunst, who brings a measured poise that reveals an ability few felt she possessed. Claire is now fully aware of the danger the planet Melancholia poses and becomes obsessed by its trajectory. Justine does little to help matters as she tells Claire “the world is evil, we shouldn’t grieve for it”. Here we are reminded of the resounding theme at the centre of Antichrist; the belief that the world is evil (“nature is Satan’s church”). The film then takes on a more sedate but equally sombre tone as Justine becomes more physically functional the closer the planet gets. Mercifully Von Trier peppers the gloom with some exquisite moments of interaction between Claire and Justine and some inspired Pre-Raphaelite reproductions; one such moment features a naked Dunst bathed in the moonlight reflected off Melancholia.
In the final moments, as the planet bares down on the Earth, the film takes on a beautiful stillness that combined with the powerlessness of the characters, evokes a metaphysical gut check. Von Trier’s position is clearly aligned with existentialist thinkers Nietzsche (Nihilism) and especially Sartre (existence precedes essence), the end of everything comes (as it does to Justine) as something of a relief! It is only in these closing moments, in the face of impending annihilation that Justine is shown as completely comfortable with the world around her as she becomes the pillar of strength and voice of reason. It is at this juncture that Melancholia as a work is also at its strongest. The weight and significance of the moment is very moving.
Overall Melancholia is not one of his masterpieces but, as usual it is a daring and ambitious work from Von Trier. Despite a lacklustre first hour a very strong part two transforms the film into a fully realised, cinematic meditation on the nature of depression. In the end, as Melancholia collides with the earth: bringing about the end of all things, we are left with plenty of resonant imagery and a substantial amount of food for thought (how does one accept the end of all things?). It stands as yet another inspired and thoughtful piece, albeit intellectually unenlightening.