MELANCHOLIA: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsboug, Kiefer Sutherland (135 min.)
I find certain delight when I see a film that is unlike anything I have ever seen before. They come along once in a while, maybe five times a year in a good year, and the great uniqueness of these films restores my faith in the creative process. In a time where Hollywood movies are churned out on a conveyor belt of unoriginality, looking to snatch the biggest payday possible before rocketing out to home video sales, seeing a film that is original and distinct is like a wonderful breath of fresh air. Even if said film focuses on the end of the world.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is the most captivating film I have seen this year, one of the most beautifully unsettling pictures I can remember. I have seen where this film has been called a bookend to Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, one observing the origin of life while the other examines the end. But I dare say this film affected me greater, and will stick with me longer. It is just as bold as Malick’s film, and I can see the comparisons. But make no mistake, this is a unique experience, and trying to tie it in with any other film would be doing it a disservice.
Melancholia begins with an extended prologue, a ten minute slow-motion sequence set to Wagner’s morose Tristan and Isolde in which we see the two women of the story in situations we don’t immediately comprehend. This is a bold stroke by von Trier before he settles into the story, told in two parts. The first part, titled “Justine,” focuses on an all night wedding party at a lavish country estate which seems to double as a grand hotel. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, has just been married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and the two newlyweds are traveling in a stretched limo to the reception at the estate. The estate is run by Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her astronomer husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Once they arrive at the reception, it is clear this collection of family and close friends cannot rightly function with one another. Something is seriously amiss. Some of the guests are bitter, others distracted by their own needs, others possibly insane. This includes Justine.
Justine’s estranged parents are the myopic and impossible Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) who doesn’t believe in marriage and sees everything here as a farce, and the aloof Dexter (John Hurt), who loves Justine but seems quietly concerned about her mental state. Justine’s boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), is trying to pull an ad slogan from her. Justine appears first as a serene new bride, but her mood reveals itself as a façade. She is the first person to spot Melancholia, a planet which we will soon realize is headed for an impact with earth and will destroy the planet, and her observation of the planet as a star in the distance seems to change her mood just as she walks into the reception.
The entire first half is dedicated to showing the frivolity of such affairs. Melancholia is headed for earth, so what does a cake cutting or a first dance matter? This mindset slowly overtakes the ceremonial aspects of the wedding and Justine’s mental state deteriorates rapidly as she begins acting out, despite the best efforts of Claire and John to keep everyone happy and none the wiser. I got the sense that the planet itself has begun to dissolve the mentality of these people, and as we go into the second part of the film it is clear the impending doom has begun to affect the characters.
Part two is called “Claire,” and focuses squarely on the arrival of Melancholia. Justine has now deteriorated completely and cannot eat or function. It seems she has become resigned to the fate of the world. Claire has grown preoccupied by the planet, and is frightened. John assures everyone that the planet will simply pass us by and be beautiful to see. These three characters take on the three available reactions to such an event: fear, resignation, and denial. Of course, Melancholia will impact with the earth and all will be lost, so it is von Trier’s decision to remain with these characters at this estate until the end. There is no influence from the outside world, and this allows von Trier a certain artistic liberty. The story is decidedly science fiction, but the lack of outside influence, news reports or presidential addresses or worldwide panic and fear, create a sort of serenity and introspection. A film with different ideas would grow conventional.
Melancholia is about the final days of this world, and it examines an event in ways I have never seen on film. While the second half may focus more on Claire, it is Justine’s story from the beginning. And the way she looms as a presence, much like the planet itself, she haunts the picture like a ghost. This is the finest, most daring work of Kirsten Dunst’s career. This is not a film about the science of it all, but about the mood of these characters and their varying degrees of coping. It is a film which commands a second and a third viewing. I feel like discussing this film having seen it only once is the incorrect thing to do. But I must get some thoughts and observations out. Because the next time I see Melancholia I may feel something greater, something larger, something new. This is the sign of a brilliant film.