The films of Lars von Trier are a mixed bag. The majority of his cannon are exercises in provocation that are hindered by an exuberance of ideas or needless restrictions he would impose on himself. Whether it’s his hyper stylized early works (The Element of Crime, Europa) or his “Golden Heart” Trilogy (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark) or the abandoned trilogy on the American Condition (Dogville, Manderlay) von Trier has a knack for making films that beg to be pondered and discussed, if not necessarily enjoyed. Relentless in pursuit of his vision, the director is both talented and infuriating. His last film, Antichrist, was a muddled, unsettling dissertation on grief, marriage, psycho-analysis and feminism all shrouded under the veil of a horror film.
His latest, Melancholia, brings us no closer to answering that question, but that’s not saying that the film is unsuccessful. In fact, this may be von Trier’s most controlled effort to date. It has been said that von Trier has on occasion suffered from debilitating bouts of depression. If Antichrist was the filmmaker at war with himself, Melancholia is his catharsis. It’s the story of two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) that plays out in two parts.
The first half of the film takes place during the wedding reception of Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and Justine (Dunst). The reception is being held at the palatial estate of her sister Claire, her young son and her husband John (Keifer Sutherland.) They play hosts to a cavalcade of friends and family, of which include the sisters’ bitter, outspoken mother and their aloof father. Justine, who we quickly learn suffers from depression, lays to waste her own marriage, leaving the entire procession, especially her long-suffering sister in her wake.
The tone shifts in the second half of the film as we learn that a rogue planet, aptly named Melancholia, is possibly on a collision course with earth. The end of the world is coming and while there is hope that the planet will simply pass Earth by, the inevitable questions of hope and reason, of faith and science, of our very existence are pondered. Melancholia is disguised as many things. It is at times a family drama, a comedy of manners or a science-fiction film. At its core, this is a film about depression. The planet, a metaphor for the affliction, bears down on everyone in the film.
Kirsten Dunst, a minor annoyance in many of her roles, a major one in her others, gives a fearless, emotionally naked performance worthy of the promise she showed over a decade ago. Never has the impact of depression, both on one’s self and on their surroundings been so clearly personified on film. Equal praise should be given to Gainsbourg and Sutherland, as a couple tasked with dealing with Justine’s depression and the end of the world.
In the end, Melancholia is more of what we’ve come to expect from von Trier – A film that is full of ideas, some of them explored with great depth, others merely skimmed over. What the film lacks in clarity, it more than makes up with beauty and passion. This is clearly a subject that von Trier has given a lot of thought to and it shows, particularly in its second half. Von Trier is excellent at asking questions, one only hopes that one day he will have some answers.