You have to give Lars von Trier credit: the man never does anything halfway. How many directors shooting an apocalyptic disaster film have the nerve to actually destroy the world? And no, this isn’t a spoiler for his latest film, Melancholia, since he does it within the eye-poppingly surrealistic ten-minute opening sequence.
The rest is effectively told in flashback, and in two parts. The first one could actually stand on its own, as it explores how depression manifests itself in Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Specifically, it follows the night of the reception after her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). It’s held at the country house — actually Tjolöholm Castle, in Sweden — owned by her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband, John (Keifer Sutherland).
Claire urges Justine not to make any scenes — of course there’s an unspoken history — but it’s hard not to with her mother and father (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) pushing her buttons, not to mention her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) sending a trainee (Brady Corbet) to follow her around.
This part alone will reward deeper examination to tease out von Trier’s subtexts. Dunst absolutely nails Justine’s depression with the way her affect telegraphs the upcoming shifts. Her behavior is not only erratic and counterproductive, but self-consciously so; she knows what she’s doing will hurt her, and yet she can’t manage to stop herself. Which, of course, feeds back in and makes the depression and acting-out even worse. It feels much like the cinematic analogue of some of David Foster Wallace’s writings on the subject, like “The Depressed Person” and “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation to The Bad Thing” — the latter particularly for its metaphorical description of the experience of living with or recovering from depression as akin to an alien world.
The second part introduces the planet Melancholia, which has been “hiding behind the sun”. Don’t try to take the orbital mechanics too seriously here; von Trier certainly didn’t. Anyway, Claire invites Justine out to stay at the house, partly to care for her during a particularly bad depressive episode, and partly to view Melancholia’s approach and flyby. John is as excited as his son, Leo (Cameron Spurr), is, but Claire finds herself worried by doomsaying predictions.
This part is a pretty radical tonal shift from the first one, and von Trier does just about everything differently except for his hand-held camera work. It’s also the more difficult part to suss out its meaning; I’m currently leaning towards the fact that Melancholia’s approach seems to take us through the mirror, with everyone but Justine experiencing anxiety attacks and depression, but that doesn’t quite hold together. Another view I’ve considered is that Melancholia is actually an outward reflection of Justine’s inner turmoil, but I’m not sure of that one, either. In any event, there’s plenty of food for thought here to chew on.
It’s also in this second part that von Trier returns to some of his visionary flights of fancy. The influence of German romanticism is strong, particularly in one scene I’m still not sure is a dream or not. The prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a leitmotif of the whole film, but is particularly prevalent in this part.
The use of so much music also serves to underscore the fact that this is likely von Trier’s most conventional film in at least twenty years. And yet it’s probably still among the least accessible films to a conventional commercial audience. Theaters showing the film will have to dust off the same pre-show warnings they used for The Tree of Life, and even so I foresee half the audience stumbling away, clutching their heads and moaning “what the hell just happened?”
This is not a film for everyone. But those who are ready, willing, and able to put in the time and effort will be richly rewarded.
Worth It: yes
Bechdel Test: pass.