(Read this in my publication In Retrospect – Issue 2)
Melancholia is an apocalyptic drama revolved around two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), during their final days before the end of the world. The planet Melancholia is heading towards Earth. Some think the planet will ‘fly-by’, whilst others worry that the planet will hit Earth, ending all of civilisation. The film is initially inspired by writer and director Lars von Trier’s personal experience with depression and is based on his insight that depressives remain calm in stressful situations. It is this relationship and contrast in the two sisters that the film focuses on.
The film begins with a seven-minute sequence of dream-like scenes in slow-motion. Birds are falling from the sky and butterflies to the ground around Justine, a horse falls to its knees, Claire is sinking into the ground whilst tightly clutching onto her son, and a number of images from space show a blue coloured planet getting closer and ultimately colliding into Earth. Lars commented that he showed the planets crash at the beginning of the film so that the audience would not be distracted by the suspense of not knowing the resolution, keeping the focus on how the characters react to this situation instead.
Melancholia is then split into two halves. The first, titled Justine, is painfully slow and dragged out. The scenes are based around Justine’s marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at her sister’s home. Typically, we are then introduced to the main cast, but it is immediately made obvious that there is a profound dislike between most of the characters. The sisters’ mother (Charlotte Rampling) and father (John Hurt) do not get on and often openly fight. More awkward tensions then arise, first between Justine and her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård) and then with Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), making it apparent that Justine is alienated from her sister too.
We also pick up on Justine’s illness as she falls tired and begins to drift away from the wedding party, becoming more sad and desperate over the night’s events. This, alongside tense scene after tense scene at the wedding party, is why the first half seems so dragged out. Not a lot is happening, but what is happening is so depressing in itself that this emotion transfers to the audience as well. Personally, I had to take a break from watching the film and had to get my energy back before carrying on. It really does take it out of you.
The second half, titled Claire – another focus on the sisters’ contrast – begins to pick up pace and it is here that the threat of Melancholia is revealed. At this point, Justine has moved in with Claire as, unable to look after herself, her depression is at its worst. In a way, this half is where the ‘action’ takes place but, by action, I mean that real events are taking place at a normal speed…
There is something genuinely beautiful about Melancholia, it was the reason I wanted to watch it in the first place. However, I also feel that you have to be a real admirer of film to pick up on it. To the average viewer, it is tragically slow and depressing and in places, almost completely uninteresting. This was my main view, but I also had respect for the film and found its beauty in the closing scene.
The film premiered at the 64th Cannes Film Festival earlier this year where Dunst received the award for Best Actress. Whether you enjoyed the film or not, there is definitely no denying her performance here. It’s really good to see play such a serious role, and it is only for this role that I have ever admired her for.
Whilst Melancholia is visually gorgeous, the shoddy camera work is enough to make you dizzy, constantly zooming in and out and wobbling in all directions as if it was filmed on a hand-held device. The Telegraph described the film as “mesmerising”, but I only found it mesmerising in the sense that it seemed to drain all of my energy as if I slowly became as depressed as Dunst’s portrayal of Justine.
Maybe I should class that as more of an advantage, though? Lars obviously had an effect on me, it was just maybe not the right one.