Lars von Trier, the Danish controversial out-spoken director, delivers his least controversial film of his career, Melancholia. The film centers around two sisters who are both psychologically ill and must deal with the tragedy that world will end when a rogue planet named Melancholia approaches Earth. It is one of the most captivating opening sequences of the year and will instantly get you hooked. But it is an art-house type of film that demands patience from the audience for most of it’s duration.
Melancholia is divided into two parts; the first part is called “Justine”. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her newly wedded husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) show up two hours late for their own wedding reception. As they are about to enter the reception, they notice an unusually bright red star in the sky and take the time to admire it despite already being so late. You can tell that something is bothering Justine, as she disappears throughout the reception to be by herself. Justine acts as if she is going to fall asleep on more than a couple occasions and at one point takes a bath instead of cutting the cake.
At the halfway point of the film, there is not a whole lot we know about Justine yet. The plot also does not advance a whole lot in the first hour. Still, the film does not lose your attention as you get a sense that it is building up to something. It feels like the film was almost shot in reverse as we are shown the characters in action before knowing anything about them, as it turns out that is what the second part is about.
The second part of the film called “Claire” and is in the point of view of Justine’s sister named, you guessed it, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Suddenly, the film starts giving us more background on the characters and the story. The red star they mentioned at the beginning is in fact the planet Melancholia, which is supposed to pass by Earth in 5 days. At least that is what the scientists are saying; Claire is worried that they might be wrong.
Unless you were not paying attention, the opening sequence gave away the film. The planet does collide with Earth and the end of life as we know it is looming. But knowing that does not take away from the film, knowing that only adds to it. There are many transformations in the film but the most obvious one is the characters themselves.
It turns out that Justine is extremely depressed to the point of barely functional without Claire. Claire battles with her own illness with anxiety about Melancholia. Justine does not help with the anxiety when she tells Claire that “Life on Earth is evil” and there will not be much time left on it. As the planet approaches Justine seems to become more relaxed and normal than ever while Claire is basically switching roles with Justine. It is as if Justine is represented as Melancholia and Claire is represented as Earth, it may be stretch but the paths of destruction links them together.
Beginning shots of slow motion were captured fantastically and had a perfect score to go along with it (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). Showcasing people in their last moments before the plant Melancholia collided. We see lightning coming from Kristen Dunst’s finger tips and her laying in her wedding dress on water with her eyes closed. The beginning and ending scenes were phenomenally well shot and hard to forget.
Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for her role of Justine. Dunst does an amazing job of playing an unhappy person who cannot deal with everyday normal activities but can deal with the world ending. Charlotte Gainsbourg (who worked with von Trier in Antichrist) does an equally impressive job with her supporting role as the supporting sister.
Melancholia is perhaps the best “end of the world” film as it does not try to sugarcoat anything or use a far-fetched sci-fi solution to magically resolve the impending doom. Instead, it shows us paths of destruction in multiple ways, psychologically through Justine’s character and physically with the planet Melancholia. While the beginning and ending scenes are brilliant, the middle section is so-so. At the very least, I think most people can agree it is an ambitious film that you can admire from a technical standpoint.