Identikit Hollywood trash aside, it has become apparent that 2011 was a vintage year for art house cinema what with some modern masterpieces sneaking in amongst the Transformers sequels (The Skin I Live In, We Need To Talk About Kevin). Lars von Trier’s latest cinematic offering Melancholia has been out for a while now, so sorry for the lateness of the review, but if you haven’t seen it, it really is one not to be missed.
Melancholia is a sort of sister movie to the harrowing Antichrist which I have previously raved about at length. As you probably already know, the movie follows depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her pragmatic sister Claire (another awesome performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they deal with a failed wedding in the first chapter and the imminent end of the world by rogue planet Melancholia in the second. A lingering, very personal tragedy, it has been surprisingly successful at the box office. The subject of mental illness is handled in a complex, subtle and insightful way, probably thanks to both Trier’s and Dunst’s history with the illness. At one point in the film Justine tells her sister she feels like she is dragging herself through thick, grey sludge. This inability to escape her mental illness is mirrored by the other characters inability to escape their impending doom and may explain why she seems more able to cope throughout the film, while everyone else breaks down. She is used to it after all.
The film opens with a cinematically gorgeous montage of stylised images similar to that in his previous work; a dream-premonition of the plot as seen through the distorted fantasies of Justine. Set to Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it acts as an awe-inspiring painting, if you will, of what is yet to come. Following this majestic opener, the title screen – ‘Lars von Trier Melancholia’ appears in the same font as that of Antichrist and we are thrown into the handheld camera shot wedding chapter entitled ‘Justine’. This chapter is lengthy and uncomfortable, exploring fraught family dynamics through the hazy perspective of someone drifting between states of mind, overcome with unnamed terror and a desire to avoid the party. Crucially, Justine cannot be ‘happy.’
Despite the best efforts of those around her, she can’t quite get there. This is rendered with such awkward poignancy heightened by the fairytale setting of the lavish castle and the references to a partcular star in the sky that conveniently disappears halfway through – though the rouge planet ‘Melancholia’ itself isn’t mentioned. While I can’t say that Justine provides an entirely accurate portrayal of mental illness, she is a compelling and frustrating character to watch – tragic and vicious, spontaneously rejecting her husband while pleading for familial support. Before tackling this role I gave little thought to Kirsten Dunst’s presence on screen, but I couldn’t fault her portrayal of Justine at all. A subtle performance of a character both maddening and endearing.
The second chapter, ‘Claire,’ takes place at the same castle hotel following the wedding with a stripped-down cast of only the three main characters and Claire’s young son. ‘Melancholia,’ the ‘fly-by’ planet takes on a life of it’s own. A fifth character almost, mirroring the sun and moon hanging ominously in the sky. As it dawns on the small cast that it is only a matter of time before their imminent death, von Trier explores the differing ways in which they handle their last moments of mortality to devestating effect. The previously strong figures crumble with terror while Justine is eerily serene, ‘melacholia’ is something she is accustomed to, a constant weight upon her. At it’s destruction, along with her own, there is relief at the finality.
And here is the very heart of the film; it is little more than a big, tasty metaphor. The two chapters are essentially reflections of one another, the burden of Justine’s condition is as the destructive planet, destroying all around it. In less delicate hands, this analogy could be regarded as clunky and obvious, but the lush, haunting scenery and wild, Jane Eyre-ish landscapes create a sense of impending doom that is at once dream-like and uncannily life-like. Indeed, following the breathtaking finale, I for one was struck by how much the film lingered with me, much in the way of a half-remembered nightmare that you can just about stomach dwelling on. An uneasy feeling, but a welcome one.
Adding to the hallucinatory quality of the film is a deft use of overt symbolism that serves to highlight the isolation of Melancholia’s characters. Their life in the second chapter is at a great distance from society, a very private trauma minus a supporting cast or indeed a television. The only place Claire and her husband get their information on the planet is from the internet and their own flights of imagination. To cement this isolation, it is noted that Justine’s horse, Hercules, will not allow her to cross over the wooden forest bridge that separates their enclosed land from the rest of the world. Despite some uncomfortable scenes in which the horse is violently whipped, she cannot overcome the bridge.
Separation is total – in a way, it is only the cast that are hit by Melancholia – in the confines of their private land, the rest of the world may as well not exist at all. Through the distorted eyes of Justine and the young nephew she shares an affinity with, the lines between reality and fantasy blur together. Not in a cheesy ‘imagination will save the day,’ fashion, but one that offers a bleak kind of comfort. The end of the world comes with no redemption, no consolation and very little in the way of an explanation. Like all else in the lives of the fraught, small family, it just happens, and they are forced into dealing with it as they had to with Justine’s poisonous anguish at her wedding.
Melancholia is that rare thing – an acutely observed, harrowing art-movie with incredible effects and music that don’t force the issue. Disregard it’s director’s outbursts and courting of controversial media attention (von Trier got permanently banned from the Cannes film festival for making an ill-timed Nazi ‘joke’ to the horror of ‘Best Performance’ winning Dunst.) If Malik’s The Tree of Life was a tad too pious and inadvertently amusing for your tastes, Melancholia will fill the hole.