Lars Von Trier is not my friend. He may be an exceptional filmmaker with an incredible eye, but I’d be cautious about sitting across from him at lunch. Wouldn’t pick him for my kickball team. He’s not getting an invite to my birthday party, as he’d probably freak out the other guests. The controversial director of Dogville, Antichrist and Manderlay, Trier is a borderline genius, creating beautiful works of obtuse madness. As a film fan, I want to like him so I can sit at the cool kids table, but it all seems so pretentious, the cinematic equivalent to the raving madman on the subway. He’s probably right about the nature of US politics but I can’t get past his inane babbling.
But sometimes, the worlds of high art and wonderful story combine in an unexpected, exceptional way. Such is the case of Melancholia, a strikingly sublime story about depression, family pressures and the eventual end of all things.
The film opens with a series of barely moving images set against a sweeping score. Tone is established immediately and with each captivating portrait, the film’s plot is thematically laid out. Afterwards, we meet Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at her wedding. At the outset, we learn she suffers from intense clinical depression. She dips away from the party to sulk in a bathtub, turns aside the affection of her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and mopes about, much to the chagrin of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother in law John (Kiefer Sutherland). All of this is designed to provide a back drop for Justine’s affliction and while it’s a shame all the family setup is tossed out once the wedding ends, it still works on thematic level.
And besides, who needs the entire cast when the five main characters work so well: Justine, Claire, John, their young son Leo and a giant planet threatening to collide with Earth. The looming landmass is strangely named Melancholia and amateur stargazer John assures everybody it’s going to pass them by. Here, the film switches from Justine’s suffocating depression to Claire’s role as her caregiver and the strain it takes on the family. This relationship is the meatiest aspect of the movie and the most honest. Those who care for the mentally ill often develop issues of their own and this is painfully reproduced in the middle scenes. It also helps the final four actors are all exceptional. Charlotte Gainsbourg is particularly great as the family matriarch trying to keep everything together despite her own fears. The acting is dense, emotive and, with the exception of a few awkward moments, spot on.
Trier has never been one to approach his work rationally, but Melancholia finds him at his most focused, supporting a number of themes with strong, solid storytelling. His use of symbols, such as Leo’s crude tool to see if the planet is getting closer, makes total sense both in plot context and the deeper subject matter. It’s dense but fulfilling, a blend of artistic achievement and genuine character building. Of course, Trier’s eye tends to wander but when it does, it indulges in beautiful imagery such as Dunst “planet bathing” at a riverbed and stunning shots of the approaching planet.
In the final third, everything comes together in a predictable but glorious way. Relationships are resolved, loose ends are tied (as much as can be expected) and the movie concludes in sweeping fashion. These are exceptionally rare considering the director’s pervious work. Melancholia isn’t just the most complete and satisfying film of Trier’s career. It’s a shining example of the power of artistic focus. Lars Von Trier’s opus to crippling sadness is marvelously acted and nuanced while featuring the stunning imagery that’s been his hallmark for almost two decades. He might not be meeting my parents at the birthday party, but we may become pals after all.
Score 9 out of 10