**This post has numerous spoilers in Melancholia**
Melancholia, released in 2011, is perhaps one of Lars Von Trier’s more financially successful films, and perhaps the most palatable to mainstream audiences. Well known for his shock-value film making, and a career that began in the artistic-indie realm of Dogme filmmaking, Von Trier took a distinct move away from his traditional films with Melancholia, an ensemble cast and less graphic content than we are used to (Von Trier has famously used unsimulated sex and explicit violence, usually self-inflicted). Melancholia revolves around two sisters. One of the sisters, Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, arrives at her own wedding reception late with her new husband, Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgård, it quickly becomes clear that Justine is suffering terribly with depression and anxiety. Whilst all this is happening, her family unit is dissolving, the pressures of her job are crushing her and Melancholia, a planet, is hurtling towards earth. The other sister, Claire, played by Von Trier favourite, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is polar opposite of her sister. A bit uptight and forceful with her opinions, ends up caring for Justine, who descends into an almost catatonic like state of severe depression. She seeks assurance from her husband John, played by Keifer Sutherland, that Melancholia won’t hit the earth, fascinated, he watches and tracks the planets movements.
Melancholia opens with a traditionally ‘Von Trier’ style, an extreme slow motion montage, artistically motivated but also unashamedly indicative of what is to come. With images of space and stars mixed with pain and torment, it’s a wonderfully evocative scene, perhaps lacking the punch that Antichrist did with its opening scene, but still setting up the rest of the film effectively. It also serves a purpose in that it depicts the end of the world before the film has even begun, shattering any illusion of tension of whether or not the world will end. And this kind of feeds into the entire theme of the film. Von Trier has said that he was inspired by a therapy session to treat his depression in which he was told that those with depression are seemingly able to cope better in disasters as they are already expecting the worst to happen. This intimate examination of depressive episodes is only enhanced by the sci-fi side-story of Melancholia colliding with earth, the world literally ends, there is no escape, no reasoning, no negotiation, no chance of recovery. The story itself revolves around impulse and heightened emotion. Justine’s marriage is doomed before it even begins, she quits her job at her own wedding, she also has sex with a colleague in the hotel grounds hours after marriage, her parents constantly bicker publicly and humiliate one another, Claire is forced into caring for her sister and ultimately confronting her own mortality when the end of the world is imminent, upon the discovery of her husband’s body as a result of a suicide. It is utterly overwhelming.
Melancholia is not for escapists, it’s suffocating and exhausting. Kirsten Dunst as Justine, is perhaps one of the best female performances of 2011. Her nuanced performance is spot on, she manages to capture in both speech and movement what it is like to suffer from extreme depression. Startlingly accurate is her portrayal, it was unsettling to watch someone unwind so rapidly. Her presence fills the screen with asphyxiating sadness, and it’s compelling and emotive. It could well be Kirsten’s finest performance ever. Supported by an equally talented Charlotte Gainbourg, who perfectly encapsulated a more restrained and internalised form of anxiety, the pair adequately fill the overwhelmingly emotive story. the performances are so forceful and loaded with emotion, it is at times too much. It’s incredibly affecting, and this combined with the inevitable end of the world, it is an additional stress for audiences; the total futility of high-emotional response to tragedy, some things cannot be changed no matter how much you wish they could, therefore fear is pointless.
Von Trier has distanced himself from making ‘perfect’ films, even going as far as saying that imperfections exist within his film to make them more interesting, and interestingly, he has since said of Melancholia that he regrets making something so polished. In the run up to the films release, he published a statement distancing himself from the hype of the film (arguably spurred on further by his now infamous ‘I am a Nazi’ press conference at Cannes) which has catapulted Melancholia into the mainstream, introducing many to a director whose infamy has remained confined within the artistic cinema realm. I don’t think Melancholia will send audiences out rushing to buy his earlier work, but in terms of the tone of Von Trier’s films, it’s certainly one of the most accessible and palatable films he has created, even if it is hard work at times.
Melancholia reminded me that cinema is, in its purest form, a work of art. It’s full of loaded symbols and metaphors, and in terms of abstract representations of tangible emotions and concepts, Melancholia perhaps isn’t the most ‘intelligent’ film, likening depression to the literal end of the world? Not difficult to see the symbolism there. But ultimately, Melancholia is a beautifully crafted film, spectacularly gorgeous visuals, and as to be expected, stellar performances from the ensemble cast, if a little full on and heavy-handed in the execution of the concept and ideas within the story, it’s a must for anyone with an interest in cinema or something a little bit different.
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