“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we don’t feel fine”.
Amidst the maelstrom of controversy surrounding his comments at the 2011 Cannes Festival, it was easy to forget that Lars Von Trier had actually made a movie. Whether you think that then Danish director should have his mouth forcibly sewn shut or not, it’s hard to deny Von Trier’s status as one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers. On the surface, Melancholia is meant to be Von Trier’s stab at a sci-fi film (in his quest to make at least one film in every popular genre). But, whilst there are one or two nods towards the conventions of the genre, the film is better viewed as an examination of the corrosiveness of familial relationships and a treatise on the effects of depression.
After a stunning and oblique credits sequence/prologue in which the end of the world is rendered to a disconcerting and dreamlike effect, we move to the story of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who is celebrating her wedding to the benignly dutiful Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). With friends and family – including her acid tounged mother (Charlotte Rampling, who is brilliantly cold) and her louche father (John Hurt) – Justine tries to enjoy the occasion. However Justine’s struggle with depression consistently looms and she seems incapable of preventing herself from sabotaging the occasion and alienating those who care for her. As her long suffering sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) attempts to salvage the wedding reception, it seems that Justine will let everything fall apart. But when Justine discovers something in the sky, there seem to be bigger problems to deal with. Fast forward and Justine – in the midst of a crippling depressive episode – goes to visit Claire and family.
From the outset the film sets its stall in the operatic and melodramatic. From the aforementioned opening sequence to the use of Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, there’s no denying of the moments of epicness in the film...
Whilst they try and deal with Justine, a planet called Melancholia is due to fly past the Earth. But there is no way it will collide. Is there? From the outset the film sets its stall in the operatic and melodramatic. From the aforementioned opening sequence to the use of Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, there’s no denying of the moments of epicness in the film (so much so that Von Trier has labelled his own film ‘vulgar’). Yet it’s also balanced by an affecting intimacy partly achieved by the urgent camerawork and improvised feel but also by the juxtaposition between the enormity of universal happenings and the seeming insignificance of everyday human existence. Certainly, whilst the depression metaphor is somewhat laboured (it’s a blue planet called Melancholia: DO YOU SEE?!), there’s no doubt that the film is an often painful insight into the nature of the illness. Inspired by Von Trier’s own crippling bouts of depression, the film is one of the disease’s aspects writ large. As depression can often make everything feel pointless and insignificant, Melancholia proves that it is: the upcoming end of the world renders human existence a mere triviality. Yet, despite its inherent bleakness, there’s still a certain hope inherent in proceedings with human stoicism in the face of the inevitable end shown as something of a virtue (albeit a virtue brought about naivety).
The performances are superb with Dunst deserving the accolades she’s received as she gives a raw, exposed and unafraid performance. Justine is often completely unlikable as she spits venom at those closest to her yet there’s still an identifiable sympathy and vulnerability to her. Gainsbourg also deserves as much of the praise as she is a wonderful foil for Dunst. As Claire, she straddles the line between caring and angry as she attempts to care for her sister. Her increasing mania as the end of the world seems more certain is painfully and powerfully rendered and she’s very much the emotional heart of the film. There are also plenty of fine supporting roles, including the aforementioned Rampling and Udo Kier who – for his hand alone – deserves some sort of award.
Whilst the film constantly threatens to tip into the realms of the pretentious and melodramatic, there is something tangibly real and human here that prevents it from doing so. Indeed, for all his bluff and bluster, Von Trier is often remarkably adept at examining the human condition and Melancholia is no exception. The end of the world may not come soon enough for some. But whilst we wait, Melancholia will prepare us well.
Melancholia is out on BluRay and DVD from Artificial Eye on Monday 23rd January. Extra features on both the DVD and Blu-ray include audio commentary from Lars von Trier and a Making-Of featurette looking at the film’s visual effects and style, plus interviews with Dunst and Gainsbourg. The Blu-ray also includes an exclusive 'Filmbyen - the new Mecca of Cinema' feature.
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