I’m not sure I even know where to begin with Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s new film. His previous film, Antichrist, was a disturbing, dividing and hysterical film that I found was equal parts beauty and horror. Melancholia might be more palatable to the arthouse crowd (playing to a sold-out house at the massive Embassy Theatre) but it is nothing less than a von Trier film.
I guess I’ll begin at the start and go from there. It is no small gift that von Trier turned away from the Dogme 95 aesthetic from earlier in his career, as he has crafted some of the most beautiful cinematic images ever projected on the big screen. The start of Melancholia is an extended slow-motion montage of various characters from the film, with each image capturing their different emotional states as then later seen throughout the film. The film itself is split into two parts, each one focusing on a different sister: Kirsten Dunst's Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg's Claire. Justine is getting married and her half is entirely set during her wedding day to Alexander Skarsgard's Michael. Except the day (and night) quickly descends into the worst wedding ever; Justine suffers from depression and she sinks lower and lower, with little help offered from her family (including John Hurt as her wonderfully wayward father Dexter and Charlotte Rampling as her acidic and cynical mother Gaby). And any offers she does get, she spurns. It doesn't help any that her boss (Stellan Skarsgard - Alexander's father and here playing his best man) is constantly pestering her throughout the night for new marketing ideas.
"Justine" is a well drawn family drama, with little around it of the science-fiction and is anchored by an incredibly brave and moving central performance from Dunst. She doesn't make the role histrionic or overly dramatic, instead finding the humanity (though not necessarily sympathy) in the depression. The planet named (rather on the nose) Melancholia, is there, but still distant. Then in "Claire" the focus is, unsurprisingly, on Claire and her reaction and growing agitation to the approaching planet Melancholia. She is increasingly fearful of the big blue planet hitting the earth, destroying everything, and her growing hysteria is that of a mother unable to protect her child from harm. Her husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) is defiantly rational, offering the opinions of the world's scientists and offering little in the way of comfort. We know Melancholia will end this world - as much is explicitly laid out in the opening minutes - but it's all about the characters reactions to it that are interesting. From Jack's denial, Claire's sense of impending doom and Justine's resignation are all working together and against one another.
Melancholia is a beautiful, moving piece of a cinema with von Trier operating at the height of his directorial powers. Every piece - from the casting to the photography to the thematic underpinnings - adds and mixes to the whole, creating a wonderful, delicate and genuinely moving work of art.