Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) celebrate their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth, threatening the very existence of humankind…
eyelights: Kirsten Dirst. the dysfunctional characters. the bombastic score.
eyesores: Cameron Spurr. the dubious science. the continuity errors.
“Life is only on Earth. And not for long.”
Have you ever been depressed? I don’t mean feeling low – everyone gets bad days. I mean truly depressed, with your morale in a downward spiral for extreme lengths of time, preventing you from functioning fully? Have you ever felt the bleakness take over and not known how get out of it?
In our film, Melancholia is a planet. It has been hidden behind the sun and is on a course for a “dance of death” with Earth, coming so close that it could very well collide, destroying all life as we know it. Scientists believe that it will simply share atmosphere with Earth and then move on, but many believe that they are mistaken.
This is the central conceit of Lars von Trier’s gloomy motion picture.
After a bombastic prologue that suggests the end of the world, and hints at elements of the plot, our story begins with the wedding of Justine, incarnated beautifully by Kirsten Dunst. There is no suggestion of Melancholia yet. The film begins with the two happy newlyweds trying to get to the reception, but being stuck in the woods. They seem giddy with Love.
Then things go downhill. Sharply.
Immediately after their late arrival begin the toasts. There is an effort by Justine’s boss to start the proceedings dramatically, but soon come extremely awkward comments from her father and mother, now separated and evidently at odds. The father is an eccentric who gives a genuinely unusual speech, whilst the mother chimes in with layers of bitterness and grim reality.
Justine is shaken up, and from that point onward we discover that she had been masquerading to hide her massive depression from the guests. Her sister has to sternly tell her to keep it together – suggesting that this is not a one-time issue and that they had an agreement to make an effort this time. Unfortunately, after such emotional tumult, she is unable to hold on.
Her ability to tread water, so to speak, fails completely. By the evening’s end, all is lost: conflicts have arisen between many of the family members, the party is completely spoiled, and even her romance has lost its sheen. She is well on her way to self-destruction, acting erratically and burning what few bridges that she has left. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
But true disaster looms. By the time that we see her again, utterly incapable of doing anything for herself, the characters are aware of Melancholia’s approach. While some are fascinated with this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, others are distressed over the possibility that it may mean the end of it all. Left with nothing, only Justine can cope with this possibility.
Apparently, Lars von Trier was inspired to make the film after facing a bout of depression himself. In therapy, it occurred to him that depressed people could maintain their calm in extremely stressful situations, so he put together a scenario that expresses this to the utmost degree. His intention was not to make a disaster movie, but to explore the human psyche under such stresses.
Personally, while I didn’t buy into the film’s science (which, it should be noted, von Trier didn’t even try to portray accurately), I totally bought into Justine’s disintegration. I believe that anyone who has actually suffered from depression would agree, as it accurately portrays the emotional vortex and the forces at play in such a situation as her wedding reception.
While I have never suffered from depression nearly as deeply as Justine does here, I have seen my fair share of dark days during my teen years. Watching Justine, I understood exactly how difficult it must have been to keep up appearances as she did because I was never able to. I also understood how fragile her composure was, and how the people around her could affect her – and had, in fact, likely infected her.
You see, Justine was likely raised in an especially dysfunctional family, with a flighty, distant father, a morose and brutally honest mother, and a sibling who had been favoured over her. The stability she needed and the life tools that one would natural hope to receive in a family were not there to inherit. She had been built one shaky building block over the next, becoming a brittle construct.
Happiness was not easily attained, and very much impossible to sustain. By the time she was an adult, she was wired all wrong and was incapable of sorting through the mess; all she could do was live in the moment and try to make it work. She was a successful professional, but likely at a cost to her own stability – focused as she was on her work, she couldn’t make the rest of her life run smoothly.
The film isn’t entirely about depression, thankfully, but it is nonetheless grim. It is, after all, about the end of the world. In the second part of our story, we follow Claire, Justine’s sister, as she copes with the coming of Melancholia. Hidden away at their private resort, she and her family prepare for the momentous occasion – she dreading the worst, while her husband and son expected a miracle.
To me, this was the least interesting part of the picture; it relied on the family dynamics and I didn’t find the characters that interesting, even though they all felt very realistic to me. The husband, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is an extremely rich man who takes the event lightly, as something to share with his son, Claire is a relatively bland woman, and so is their son. And, by that point, Justine is pretty much catatonic.
‘Melancholia’ wants to express something about the value of life, of its meaning on a personal level and on a grander scale, but I wasn’t quite sure if it was meant to be taken at face value or not. When Justine says that “life is evil”, is it meant to taken literally, or is that just an expression of her own personal state? Is von Trier trying to convey this message, or is he simply characterising a state of mind? That was unclear to me.
It didn’t bother me much, however. Frankly, my key problem with the film is in its structure: it starts with a Prologue, but doesn’t have an Epilogue; it has a part for both sisters, but the second part blends the two together. To me, a third part would have been better suited for the final moments of the film, when both sisters played and equal part. In some ways, the film seemed lopsided, as though it invested everything in its opening and then lapsed towards the end.
Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the film. Bleak as it is, I appreciate its strengths. In particular, I must say that the cast was quite excellent:
– Kisten Dunst rightly won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. The way that she naturally expressed and navigated such a range of emotion totally impressed me. I’ve long been a fan of hers, but it’s in moments like these that she completely cements my faith. Brilliant stuff.
– Charlotte Gainsbourg always leaves me feeling a bit put off, but one can’t deny her ability to inhabit her characters fully; she is a terrific actress. If ever I watch von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ (and I’m not sure that I have the stomach for it) it will be strictly because of her.
– Kiefer Sutherland isn’t exactly my favourite actor, and he doesn’t always convince me, but when he shines he’s stellar. Here, he plays it quite straight and relatively believable, but there this one scene that I’ll never forget: while Justine’s mother rants on and ruins the toasts, we can see Sutherland attack his food bitterly and chomp on it, the bitterness oozing from his pores. It may seem like a throwaway bit, but it’s felt so strongly; it’s so potent. And, frankly, I’m impressed that he was so committed to the moment considering that the cameras is barely on him. Very nice.
– Alexander Skarsgård plays Michael, Justine’s brand spanking new husband. He was so sweet, tending to Justine as best as he could, awkwardly, but delicately, dutifully, with as much understanding as he could. But one could also sense the deep disappointment and solitude he felt, being with someone he could barely reach. I’d love to see more of him; he’s got potential.
– Stellan Skarsgård was quite good, as he usually is, but he didn’t have the fire he frequently does; it felt like he wasn’t entirely there, even though he stole many moments in the picture.
– John Hurt was a riot. His character would be a terrible father to anyone, though, distracted and incapable of close connections as he is, but it’s a great part. Hurt basically went to town with it, sinking his teeth into the role as though he owned it. He was like an 18 year old in a 60 yea old’s body; it must have been loads of fun to play.
– Charlotte Rampling was exceptional, as per usual. She played a real @$$hole of a mother, but she did it with all the conviction that she could muster. She had a smaller role when one considers the big picture but, like Hurt, she is completely unforgettable – just as her character is unforgivable.
Even Udo Kier (who can camp it up like anyone can) managed to contain himself enough to make his wedding planner realistic, yet droll. The only exception to the lot was the son, “played” by Cameron Spurr, who was seemingly incapable of delivering a line naturally; he seemed under the influence of sedatives or something, like a morbidly shy boy in the wrong line of work.
Strangely, there were some continuity errors, such as when Sutherland drops off the mom’s suitcase outside, and then they are picked up at a different location by the butler afterwards. I’m not sure how a film that takes place in such a small vista could actually have such slip-ups, but I guess it happens. To me, this gelled the impression that the film could have been more polished, tended to with more precision.
However, I nonetheless enjoyed ‘Melancholia’. Well, truth be told, I’m not sure if “enjoyed” was the correct term for it. That would be like saying that ‘Det sjunde inseglet’ was a ball of laughs. But I appreciated it. It’s an imperfect film about imperfection, both in humanity and in life itself. Its message about the value of life is slightly inscrutable, but it nonetheless offers much to think and talk about.
Date of viewing: May 12, 2013