Directed by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, John Hurt
For fans of: Moon, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Solaris (the non-crappy ’72 Russian version), Ingmar Bergman films
For most moviegoers, depression isn’t exactly an embraced subject for movies, but Lars von Trier has made a stunning film out of it.
Melancholia, is centered on the strained relationship between sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) during the impending doom of a planet’s collision with Earth. Smiles all around, right?
It is implied that Justine has been plagued by bouts of depression, and it only worsens as the countdown to Earth’s death draws near. Claire’s worried nature (whether it is actually anxiety disorder is not clear) is also affected by that pesky blue planet Melancholia.
Instead of a suspenseful wait to discover what will happen to Earth, von Trier makes it clear in the beginning of the film that Earth does indeed clash with the planet. This allows, as he has explained, for viewers to focus more on the characters and the relationships between them rather than the outcome of Earth. The relationship to sci-fi that this movie has reminds me of Moon. Instead of space becoming the primary subject, it was more like another character to which others in the film reacted and emotions and mental states were exposed. This could make for some really interesting and experimental sci-fi/drama hybrids in the future.
However, Melancholia is primarily a drama. Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of a woman trying to conceal her depression and appear all smiles is heartbreaking yet realistic. Dunst even won the Best Actress award at Cannes Film Festival this year. She has proven that with good material, her acting can really shine.
One aspect that makes Melancholia stand out is its focus on female characters. Von Trier has always had an affinity for brutally honest and upfront depictions of female protagonists, which is something cinema has been lacking for quite a long time.
The male depictions thankfully avoided the usual Lifetime style that often go with major characters being female. Alexander Skarsgård-who plays Justine’s new husband Michael- genuinely wants Justine to be happy and enjoy her wedding day. Thank goodness for Kiefer Sutherland. He provided some lighthearted chuckles early in the film as Claire’s husband and a man stuck in the middle of two sisters’ psychological problems. They’re just the guys stuck in the middle.
The signature von Trier shaky camerawork sometimes felt a little overdone and interfered with the movie, but the colors and especially the opening sequence was beautifully shot. Some audience members have even felt a bit nauseous because of the handheld feel. Over two hours is too long for such a slow-paced drama. At times I actually wanted some kind of otherworldly force to bring some action and wake everyone up. If you are expecting a multitude of cataclysmic explosions or special effects, please don’t watch this movie! You will be snoozing by the first half.
The first half of the movie could improve by not having the wedding reception sequences so drawn out and showing Justine moping about. During the second half, emotions turn and the roles Justine and Claire play in their familial bond morph. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but it is something that greatly affects how each sister reacts to the planet’s destruction.
A mix of depression, anxiety, the apocalypse, and strained relationships may not bring mainstream audiences to the arthouse theaters, but it indeed creates a compelling art film perspective on reactions toward the possibility of death and an honest look at the social and emotional effects of mental illness.