Melancholia: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Don’t Feel Fine)

Melancholia is the first film about depression I’ve seen that feels real, despite its central (albeit allegorical) plot point of planetary collision. Lars Von Trier has made his best and most palatable film to date, a science fiction drama that balances between the operatic and the intensely intimate. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg give two of the finest performances by actresses this year, and in terms of visuals, Melancholia is among the best of the year. Its wandering narrative, occasionally languid pacing, and heavy underlining of its message may turn some off, and I was admittedly overwhelmed by the abundance of vivid imagery upon my first viewing, but it’s the rare movie about heavy subject matter that leaves you hungry to watch it again.

Von Trier begins with a montage of slow-motion imagery: birds falling from the sky, a bride floating down a river, electricity shooting from a woman’s fingers, and a planet crashing into Earth. We then meet Justine (Dunst) as her limousine is slow to arrive to her own wedding with Michael (Alexander Skaarsgard). The wedding is at the mansion of Claire (Gainsbourg) and John (Kiefer Sutherland)– it’s an ornate, lavish affair with the trappings of the finest upscale wedding you could imagine. Justine’s behavior becomes erratic, and we learn slowly of her past struggling with depression. The second half of the film follows Claire as she struggles to care for Justine post-wedding, and she observes a planet named Melancholia, which astronomers believe was hiding behind the sun, never before witnessed until now. John reassures her that everything is fine– it’s supposed to come close to Earth but then pass right by, and everything will return to normal. However, Claire has found a theory online that the planet is supposed to double back and hit Earth after it’s left, and she grows increasingly scared that the experts John believes in are wrong.

Don’t try to get caught up in the rules of astrophysics, because you will drive yourself insane. The planet is a floating metaphor in orbit, the second story running parallel to the first. Justine’s depression is a reality– things may seem fine on the outside, but it’s lurking behind any smile she may show the world. When her depression becomes apparent to her close ones, they wonder why she’s upset, because everything should be fine. Doctors, experts, and family think if they help her along and do the things she wants, her depression will simply go away. It certainly seems at moments like her melancholia is drifting away, only then for no reason at all to strike harder than before. The film isn’t just about depression though– it’s a nihilistic statement about any forces of dread acting upon you in life. You think the economic crisis will pass? You think politicians will get less corrupt one day? You think your wrecked marriage will repair itself? It may seem that way for a while… but don’t be surprised when it pulls that about-face.

Dunst gives the best performance of her career; it’s been clear for awhile that she is a more-than-capable actress, but I never really expected something this fearless would come her way. In a lesser actress’s hands, this film crosses directly over into camp (it flirts with that possibility in a few scenes), but Dunst’s eyes ground the proceedings. Watch her eyes during her wedding scenes– even before her erratic behavior kicks in, we see the discontent and paranoia settling in even as she smiles at those talking to her. A moment in which she is nude, unable to lift her leg with help to get into the bathtub, is exactly right– the nakedness isn’t erotic in the slightest. It’s pathetic and helpless, like a malcontent child. Most depictions of depression either make excuses for the victim or blame the victim for their inability to rise out of their funk. Von Trier and Dunst make no judgment: you understand her circumstances, and you understand the family’s frustrations. Depression can’t have an easy fix, and this film is savvy enough to capture that complication honestly.

The wedding is lively, full of vivid characters (John Hurt, Stellan Skaarsgard, and especially Udo Kier as a catty frustrated wedding planner shine), yet in all its excesses and music and family conflict, it’s the subtler half of the film in terms of the depiction of Dunst’s illness. As the planet approaches in the latter half, it is Dunst who is calm in the potential face of destruction. “Life is only on Earth. And not for long,” Justine tells Claire as Claire looks in vain for signs of hope. Von Trier’s message is bleak and unrelenting, but he reveals how depression isn’t unfounded– the world is depressing, and perhaps those with depression just aren’t able to reconcile their intelligent observation of humanity. Those awful things that crush the hope we have for the future aren’t going away– they’re revealing themselves, leaving momentarily, and striking back with a vengeance. Dread toys with us, and Von Trier handles it well. I think Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter was a more effective and human delivery of a similar message, as this movie gets heavyhanded and obvious in places, and the planet symbolism is not always handled gracefully. Yet as the film draws to a close and we watch Justine and Claire’s faces facing the end of life in the universe, you will feel the experience.

~ by russellhainline on December 20, 2011.

One Response to “Melancholia: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Don’t Feel Fine)”

  1. […] Stone, Take Shelter 8. Janusz Kaminski, War Horse 7. Alwin Kuchler, Hanna 6. Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia 5. Hoyte Van Hoytema, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 4. Seamus McGarvey, We Need To Talk About Kevin 3. […]

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