Controversial film-maker Lars von Trier’s time at Cannes this year will be remembered for all the wrong reasons when his work should have got the lion’s share of the attention – especially as Melancholia is by far the better film than Palme d’Or winner, Malick’s The Tree Of Life. Much to von Trier’s distaste, this film is far more mainstream and commercial than his previous work, Antichrist, which makes it more accommodating to a wider audience, but perhaps equally contentious in other ways.
Set in two parts, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a depressive who believes a castle fairy-tale wedding is what she longs for and will make her ‘normal’ and fit into society’s expectations. When it all goes horribly wrong, her older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is left to pick up the pieces in the second half. However, their world has a greater looming and impending danger that could bring an end to everything they know.
From the elevated Wagner crescendo opening of disturbing but breathtaking imagery, Melancholia is a strangely hypnotic and beautifully imagined ode to human suffering that feels burdensome with the impending planetary doom casting an even greater dark cloud. Depression is von Trier’s muse and his film is so peculiar and depictive of the illness that it all together drains and pulls – much like watching a car crash of biblical proportions.
The original idea came to von Trier after speaking to Penélope Cruz who loved French dramatist Jean Genet’s The Maids about two maids who kill their mistress. Substituting Cruz for Dunst (due to work commitments), and the maids for two very different sisters, this engrossing tale grapples with the idea of normality and everyday reality and ritual being so trivial and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, highlighted by the sisters finding some sort of perverted euphoria at the end to their suffering when the daily decisions are taken out of their hands.
Dunst who suffered from depression in real-life brings tragic warmth and a damaged spirit to her role of Justine, switching from playful and fun-loving one minute to glazed and lethargic the next with alarming ease. Hers is perhaps the closest illustration to the debilitating illness that cinema has ever witnessed, without trivialising it. A huge sense of melancholy fills each scene when Justine is present, resulting in some highly unsettling viewing. Her character transforms in the latter half, finding a raw inner strength that Justine has been searching for.
Gainsbourg as Claire is excellent, the ‘together’ and mentally stable matriarchal figure by scientist husband John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) side. Von Trier forever toys with his characters’ presumed contentment, more so with Claire who has the greatest to lose and therefore, rapidly descends faster than her younger sibling into her own kind of hell. It’s this yin-and-yang marriage of the sibling personalities that makes the sisters’ collective plight so alluring and robust.
Another reason to simply wonder at von Trier’s latest cinematic epic is the extraordinary imagery, from the slo-mo Dali-esque beginnings to the Delaroche/Waterhouse Pre-Raphaelite reproductions that hold a stunning, often naked Dunst in the fore. Melancholia may be about depression and human futility in the universe, but far from it being visually gloomy at times with its frenetic hand-held camerawork at the wedding, it romanticises every other aspect. We dip in and out of a colour-rich fantasy with stark contrast. One such example is the planet, Melancholia’s scenes that are awe-inspiring one minute with their illuminating blue wash over the golf course, to frighteningly ferocious the next with a nauseating hum forever present that adds to the doomsday dramatics. It is a totally challenging and absorbing experience.
Von Trier said he didn’t like his film. Some will have an immediate hate-hate relationship with it, possibly due to its art-house feel or a greater fear of the topics it tackles. Others will be left simply emotionally breathless. Either way, the master has unleashed another testing masterpiece that will draw out deep-seated anxieties and discussions for all.
**WATCH THE TRAILER HERE