Melancholia

Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling

Melancholia
noun /ˌmelənˈkōlēə/
1. Deep sadness or gloom; melancholy
2. A mental condition marked by persistent depression and ill-founded fears

Lars Von Trier’s latest, Melancholia, sees him in a much more contemplative mood than his previous outing Antichrist. The symbolism is still there, but it is far more subtle. On the face of it, the plot centres on a mysterious new planet, Melancholia, which threatens to collide with the earth. In reality, it revolves around the lives and emotional responses of two sisters, Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). A scene where Justine re-arranges the books on display in a room highlights the external conflicts between the two. Geometric art verses passionate romanticism, order versus chaos. The first half of the film follows Justine’s descent into melancholia at her wedding reception. The second half follows Claire as she tries to cope with her feeling of impending doom as the planet gets ever nearer to the earth. She tries to put on a brave face for the benefit of her son, but the cracks start to appear.

The film begins with an atypically masterful opening sequence set to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Your eyes are assailed by a beautiful tableau of visually arresting apocalyptic imagery. The scene shifts straight into Dunst arriving late for her wedding reception with her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) at huge country home supplied by her brother-in-law (Sutherland). The reception then descends into familial disputes with their father (Hurt) and mother (Rampling) epitomising the polar opposites in the sister’s lives. The whole section is very reminiscent of another Dogme 95 film, Festen. Udo Kier puts in a masterful cameo as the martyred wedding planner who refuses to look at the bride, and Stellan Skarsgård as Justine’s obnoxious boss.

Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance, and you can see why. It’s a most remarkable portrayal of severe depression. Von Trier and Dunst have both come out publically about their personal battles with depression, and it is clear that these experiences have been channelled into her performance. She takes Justine delicately through the five stages of grief: denial; anger; bargaining, depression and acceptance. As the film progresses, and with planetary collision imminent, we see her character reach the final stage with a resigned strength and composure which had been previously lacking.

Von Trier has a happy knack of getting something special out of actors, and he has definitely resurrected Dunst’s career, if not propelled her on to an Oscar. He writes wonderful characters for women, and as the film rises beautifully to an apocalyptic crescendo, you wonder whether the title actually refers more to Claire than Justine. A narrative entwined around two sisters who have a lot more in common than they would care to admit.

Melancholia is a wonderful achievement, and something of a masterstroke; beautifully shot and sumptuously acted.