It’s the name of a planet.
The H-Bomb: It’s also the name of the mental disorder that afflicts the lead character, Justine (Kirsten Dunst). After an Earth shattering opening sequence, the film proper starts on Justine’s wedding night, with her set to marry nice guy Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The marriage is being held at the secluded estate of Justine’s older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her wealthy, astronomer husband John (Keifer Sutherland), who has, as he reminds both Claire and Justine, footed the bill entirely for this lavish shindig. The wedding is being attended by everyone from her big shot marketing employer (Stellan Skarsgard) to her divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling).
We get the feeling almost immediately that something is very wrong with Justine, that she just is not acting the way a young woman should on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. In fact, we find that happiness is a feeling that is entirely alien to this girl. It starts with her showing up two hours late to her wedding ceremony, then proceeding to act like a total flake-and-a-half throughout the reception, often disappearing to wander the estate’s eighteen hole golf course and do God knows what else.
It’s hinted that Justine’s oddness is hereditary, as both of her parents are both somewhat south of normal. Her father shows up with, not one, but two girlfriends (hookers) named Betty, and her mom, whose just about as upbeat as she is, gives a speech at the reception that ends with, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” After getting a load of those two, we certainly understand where Justine gets it from. Anyhow, her behavior on this night, the specifics of which I won’t give away, leave her newly minted marriage in shambles and her promising career in ruins.
From there Justine is left in a deep, crippling depression. The kind of which leaves her sleeping away most of the day, and so inert that she practically has to be carried to the bathroom and the dinner table. She is being cared for by her sister Claire while living in her brother-in-law’s humongous mansion. Even though Claire tells her, “Sometimes I truly hate you,” in reality Claire is the only one who really cares for Justine, as she tries, with little success, to help her through it all.
Meanwhile, as if her sister’s problems weren’t enough, Claire has become concerned about reports of a planet called Melancholia, which is hurtling through space at an alarming rate, and may or may not be on a collision course with Earth. John assures her that it’s not, that it will miss us just like it missed Mercury and Venus before. But, the things she’s reading online tell a different story, as does Justine, whose own mental state seems to give her some insight into this matter.
Are we all doomed? Is extreme depression just seeing the world for the way it really is? That is one way Melancholia, the title with more than one meaning, could be interpreted, that nothing really matters because we’re all fucked anyway. I certainly can relate to that sentiment, though I’m not quite that pessimistic, yet. Written and directed by Lars Von Trier, Melancholia can be looked at as a follow up to his excellent (in my opinion) Antichrist- though I should state right now that we never get the wince inducing violence found in that film.
Both films came about by (what he alleges is) his battle with depression, but while Antichrist is a product of this depression, Melancholia could be looked at more as a dissection of it. A portrait of someone trying to cope with it and, in vain, overcome it. It puts us in Justine’s position, where she questions if it’s even worth overcoming, since because of her despair, she feels the whole world is ending. Again, the feeling of any deeply depressed person, which Von Trier literalizes in the prologue and epilogue of this film, a visually stunning, purely cinematic pair of sequences set to classical music (Wagner).
The striking, painting like imagery is, with some exceptions, mainly limited to the beginning and ending, as the bulk of the film is shot primarily in that deliberately sloppy handheld style more in common with Von Trier’s Domge ’95 philosophy. It definitely aids in getting us into Justine’s point of view, but it can also be a strain on the eyes, to the point of inducing a mild headache with this reviewer.
Melancholia has a sly, mischievous sense of humor in the first half of it, the half covering Justine’s ill-fated wedding, that makes it lighter going than a lot of Von Trier’s prior work. Hurt and Rampling are amusing as the “eccentric” parents of Justine and Claire. “Is there anyone in your family who isn’t stark raving mad?” John inquires of Claire after enduring the antics of his in-laws. Udo Kier is also funny in his bit as a wedding planner who is so disgusted with the way his event is turning out, that he refuses to even look at Justine, covering his eyes whenever she is near.
But the wedding sequence ultimately introduces us to a lot of characters that, while interesting, we won’t see again once this sequence is over, and much like the famed wedding sequence of The Deer Hunter, it just goes on too damn long. It more than establishes what it needs to establish, that Justine is nuts, her whole family is nuts, except for big sister Claire, who is always picking up after her. It then keeps driving that point home over and over until we’re just begging for it to move on.
Once it finally does move on to after the wedding, Von Trier does intrigue us with where it might go from there, especially with the introduction of the threat of the planet, Melancholia. Sadly, while I was never disinterested, I wasn’t as immersed in what was happening as much as I was in Antichrist. I thought the scenes of Justine’s catatonic moping were repetitive, and by the time Melancholia (the movie, not the planet) reached its inevitable end- which was revealed in the prologue- I thought to myself, “Thank God! Finally!”
I can only speak for myself, but I just never found it as gripping, or profound, or moving as I sensed it was trying to be, and Von Trier’s use of imagery, while again striking, came off as heavy handed and pretentious.
However, that’s not to say I didn’t like it, because I did. This is mainly due to the many colorful supporting performances in the first half of the film, as well as those of the lead actors. I’ve never been a big fan of Dunst. I’ve found her to be a passable actor, but not a great one… until now. Her work in this is simply phenomenal, as she truly makes us feel the pain of her character’s condition. She won best actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for her performance, and the fact that she was overlooked by the Academy for even a nomination only strengthens my growing lack of respect for that once great institution.
That’s to say nothing of the equally fine work by Gainsbourg, who was just as fantastic as the crazy one in Antichrist. Here, she’s ostensibly the sane one, only her sanity starts to crack as she is burdened with caring for her truly sick sister, and her own anxieties, which start to grow as the planet Melancholia looms larger and larger in the sky. Her transformation from calm and collected to absolutely frightened is one that Gainsbourg sells in spades. And it would be irresponsible of me not to mention Sutherland’s terrific turn, as a man who appears to be in control and have all the answers, but as it turns out, the exact opposite is true. Once again, great work.
Overall, Melancholia is one melancholy movie experience, and for me, a little oversold by the hype (Von Trier’s moronic comments that got him banned from Cannes didn’t help, either). Though again, it is a perfectly solid film, if a complete and total downer. It’s seems like one where more can be gleaned from it with multiple viewings, and I certainly do intend to view it again… someday. Anyone who struggles with manic depression should probably skip this one entirely, as it will not help you with your problems. At all. Trust me on that. And those with a disdain for all things “artsy fartsy,” should probably avoid it, as well. But the thoughtful film-goers out there, who like a little substance with their entertainment, and those who can find enjoyment in downbeat movies that make them feel like shit, may just find something to like in Melancholia.