Love him or loathe him, Danish auteur Lars von Trier is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the last twenty years. With works such as Breaking the Waves and his 2009 controversial horror Antichrist, we see his usual traits including hardcore sexuality, as well as his extreme depictions of women on screen. The latter, in particular, is one von Trier is fascinated with and continuously explores it in different genres, so with his new film Melancholia (his first entry into science-fiction), we see Kirsten Dunst in a depressed manner.
On the eve of her wedding, Justine (Dunst) witnesses a red star which turns out to be a planet which has been hiding behind the sun. Despite the support of her somewhat dysfunctional family who wishes her a lifelong marriage, Justine falls into manic depression which isolates her from everybody. However, her older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to help her out, even though her wealthy husband (Kiefer Sutherland) is reluctant to do so. Worse of all, the mysterious planet known as Melancholia may be approaching the Earth’s orbit.
With von Trier directing an end-of-the-world movie, you’re not going to expect Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (which was an enjoyable but silly checklist of disaster movie cliches). You could conceive this as a companion piece to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, in as much as they are both family dramas, although one is about life and the other is death. While Malick’s film is a surreal yet honest view on the birth of the universe and how the universal and the personal can reflect one another, Melancholia is about the loss of hope and the lack of continuing life.
This is all told though the extraordinary performance by Kirsten Dunst (who won the Best Actress Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), who is first of introduced as the most beautiful bride-to-be, but slowly degenerates to the point where she can barely move and constantly sleeps. In one glorious sequence, she explains to her on-screen sister that all life on Earth is evil and deserves to be punish; the honesty through Dunst’s performance is what will grab people’s attention.
If you think the wedding from Rachel Getting Married was awkward, then the first half of Melancholia is quite a treat as it features a number of unlikeable wedding guests, particularely a rather loathsome Charlotte Rampling and the always sinister-looking Stellan Skarsgard, while Dunst at the centre is slowly beginning her depression. On the second half, the story centres on the two sisters and Claire’s young son, who all go through the paranoia of the planet’s destruction. At its best, the film works when it is about the chemistry between Dunst and Gainsbourg who plays the role of Claire like a well-disciplined mother with this mysterious planet being the fear of her life.
As you would expect from Lars von Trier, the camerawork is mostly handheld action, but there is a visually-stunning slo-mo montage at the very beginning (which I am not giving away, it shows the end of the world). However, like his previous work, the film can be a challenge as the pace is very slow and there are moments that just lead to silliness. As with The Tree of Life, there will be viewers who will find this slow and pretentious, but there is enough to be impress by the beauty of Melancholia, certainly Kirsten Dunst is in top form.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: LARS VON TRIER
STARRING: KIRSTEN DUNST, CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG, KIEFER SUTHERLAND, CHARLOTTE RAMPLING, STELLAN SKARSGARD, ALEXANDER SKASGARD, JOHN HURT
RUNTIME: 130 MINS APPROX.