We hear the strains of the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The images that accompany the music are in slow motion. A bride runs through a forest, the tree roots gnarling and catching her train, as if they were reaching out to drag her into a freshly-dug earthly grave. A woman carries a child away from impending doom on a golf course, deep track marks behind her, indicating that the grass is melting away and threatening to swallow them both. A horse seems to stop in its tracks, slowly falling over, at an unseen obstacle. These are the images and main characters in Lars von Trier’s new film Melancholia, and the opening serves as an overture for the rest of the work.
The film is divided into two parts, named after the protagonists Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Part one is Justine’s wedding day, a sumptuous, extravagant event held at Claire’s family’s palatial home and golf course. The reception is a disaster. Their mother (Charlotte Rampling) vocally rails against the concept marriage in her unofficial mother of the bride speech. Numerous other guests find their own way to embarrass themselves. Justine seems distant from her otherwise attentive new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), and finds ways to steal herself away from the reception to take a bath and a nap. We soon find out that Justine is clinically depressed and is struggling to find ways to keep up her glad façade on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Claire, for her part, is obsessively trying to keep things running to a schedule and ends up chiding Justine for prolonging the evening’s festivities, uttering “sometimes I just hate you so much!” more than once.
The second part finds Justine sinking deeper into her depression, and recovering at Claire’s home. In this half, we find out that a rogue planet named Melancholia, which had been hiding behind the sun, is on a rapid collision course with Earth. This is not a mass-hysterical film along the likes of Outbreak or Contagion. It is an isolated study in how a small group of people react to impending interplanetary doom. Claire’s logical but pompous husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) confidently claims that Claire’s obsession with this looming disaster is nonsense, for science tells us that no such collision will occur and life on the planet will continue. Eventually, we see Claire’s paranoia break apart her already-fragile psyche, while Justine seems to recover and grow stronger as the collision approaches.
Director von Trier has been open about his clinical depression, and reportedly came up with the idea for this film while in therapy. Depression is not always manifest in perpetual states of sadness, he (and medical science) posits, it is actually a numbing of the senses, an impenetrable guard against the ability to feel either joy or sadness. The film’s titular fictional planet, much like the classical disease, reflects the way that melancholia can happen upon a person. Sometimes, it can be explained by a lower release of endorphins in a human being. Sometimes, it is triggered by traumatic events. Whatever its impetus, von Trier seems to be saying, it comes upon even the most promising, up-and-coming people, for no rhyme, reason or meaning. You can attach a scientific explanation to it, but like the looming collision between the planets, it will travel at its own trajectory, without regard for human feeling or ideology.
Through its two protagonists, Melancholia is not so much narrative film as it is an exploration of how differing personalities react to extreme pressure and circumstance. Claire, thrust into the role of de facto caretaker, soon becomes encompassed by her anxiety. Justine, whose supposedly happy exterior crumbles, rebuilds herself to reveal an iron will (her nephew calls her “Auntie Steel-breaker”), suggesting calm acceptance that mankind has a finite ending, and that we would all meet it together. This is a world without gods, and no one mentions religion or faith. The director will not allow something as compact as dogma to explain or colour the film with meaning. He simply allows the action to occur in a vacuum of faith, and it appears to be neither good nor bad.
As with so many of his films, von Trier demands a lot from his female leads. In Breaking the Waves, we saw Emily Watson embody a pure-hearted simpleton who believes she can degrade herself sexually in the name of God. In Dancer in the Dark, Björk is thrown to the pitiless bottom of the judicial system. In Dogville, Nicole Kidman willingly imprisons herself in an absurd but pointed allegory about the American social contract. And most notoriously in Antichrist, Gainsbourg strips herself emotionally and physically to the point of oblivion. Here, his stars are run through the ringer in challenging, complex roles. Dunst is alive for the first time in many years as an actor, her glassy-eyed placidity perfectly embodying living, breathing depression in every frame, commanding the screen in the first half as if she were hiding a horrible secret and is just dying to reveal it to the audience. She won a richly-deserved Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for her most challenging role since Interview with the Vampire. Gainsbourg, again collaborating with von Trier, is fast becoming his go-to muse with a gangbusters performance as the high-strung sister. It’s a performance of extreme control held tightly and lost little by little until she collapses, not knowing what to do with herself. Gainsbourg, who herself won Cannes’s Best Actress award two years ago, shows why she continues to be one of our most fearless actors.
This is a film of startling beauty. Von Trier’s trademark shaky-cam technical direction is still there, but it’s less of a contrivance and doesn’t distract from the majesty of his images. The photography possesses an unearthly quality, like a pre-Raphaelite painting (indeed, Dunst is posed as Ophelia drowning more than once in the film). The special effects are naturalistic and blend seamlessly into the film, lending the proceedings a balletic grace that makes one wonder if end times would ever look this good. Set to the strains of Wagner’s overture, the film is structured around the two central performances as a paso doble, with the two roles intertwining and eventually shifting. The use of these images recalls Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life, and indeed makes an excellent companion piece. Although Malick’s work reaffirms the meaning of life and lends it Christian and other philosophical undertones, Melancholia argues that things are simply as they are: nothing more, nothing less.
You may wonder why I am recommending you see a film about depression. You might think it would make you sad and ponderous. I can only reiterate Roger Ebert’s assertion that only bad movies make one depressed. Melancholia is not a bad movie, and it is in fact one of the very best one of the year. I took a good friend to see it, and we had never been so excited afterward to discuss a film that so profoundly affected us. And isn’t that level of engagement the very antithesis to depression itself?