Plot: On the eve of her wedding, a depressive young woman finds comfort in her surroundings and her bitter relationship with her sister as the strange planet Melancholia hurtles towards Earth, making collision most likely.
Thoughts: Not many directors can claim to be as universally applauded and simultaneously hated as Danish art-house auteur Lars von Trier. His unique, distinct and often hard-hitting style has been both commercially and critically criticized throughout his 30 year career with many failing to find the supposed “beauty” behind some of his works, instead being met with vulgarity and mis-judged concepts. Following the release of his rather horrific exploitation of female insanity in ‘Antichrist’, many would not be blamed for believing that von Trier has now completely lost the plot. However, in his latest film ‘Melancholia’, the now loathsome Lars appears to focus on the beauty of creation and promises to keep genital mutilation to an absolute minimum, the big question being: do we trust him?
As with any of von Trier’s work, ‘Melancholia’ features a rather challenging element to its artistically driven structure. Rest assured however, it has nothing to do with self-harm or talking animals. Much of the film’s overall tone and message can be taken from the opening 10 minutes, during which we are met with a bombardment of elegantly dramatic slow-mo shots of our characters at peace and at war with the very fears which they encounter throughout the 136 minute running time. It is here where the feel of the film takes hold and although senseless at first, the sheer beauty of the masterful cinematography shines through wonderfully. As this sizzling sequence ticks on, the gently rocking of Wagner’s prelude to ‘Tristan and Isolde’ envelopes your ear-drums with glistening joy; the very definition of art and truly Lars’ finest hour.
In spite of this joyful montage of delicate mastery, the rest of the film does indeed manage to live up to its precursor. Split into two parts almost directly down the middle, (the first being the wedding of the depressive Justine, the second the descent into madness by her sister Claire) the tale is one of smooth linearity, a welcome change to the muddled presentations of some of von Trier’s previous works. The engrossingly real and shaky wedding ticks by marvelously, its botched celebrations working subtly and magnificently to show the clear and distinct descent of the troubled Justine into utter insanity. Her absurd and really quite shocking acts throughout the picture consistently plague the viewer with absent worry, there’s an air of sympathy for this tortured soul despite her almost arrogant portrayal.
The second section of the feature appears to work best overall in spite of the wicked sentiment of the first act. As Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire takes the lead, a major change in the tone and feel of the film occurs, von Trier clearly showing that we have a deep-seated connection to these suddenly well-rooted characters, an oddly alluring bond and proof that we care enough to invest emotionally in his piece. This is most obvious when, as the reigns are handed over between the sisters, a great weight of subtle insecurity previously felt for Justine completely disappears. We feel safer in the hands of Claire.
As the story continues and the characters’ impending doom suddenly appears far more fragrant, so too does the delightful use of the flawless surroundings. Single shots not only convey the lasting emotional message of the movie, but simultaneously astound you with a consistently rich and involving colour pallet. Every aspect of von Trier’s setting seems to have a greater symbolic bond with the tale, forcing a similar reaction from us; we connect greatly not only with the characters, but their environment too, it in itself almost becoming another character entirely.
In addition to ‘Melancholia’s structural and visual beauty, it must too be noted that it features acting of the highest calibre. Kirsten Dunst deploys a faithfully fragile portrayal of the depressive Justine, never once hiding behind her far more obvious beauty, truly embracing the role with everything she’s got, and it really shows. Moments of otherwise uncertainty are handled with fierce precision and utter belief in her character’s actions; Dunst in many ways becomes Justine, absorbing her melancholy spirit perfectly. Former torture puppet Charlotte Gainsbourg too handles her role with ease and integrity. The far-more hidden and undiluted outbreaks of madness from her Claire are too wholly believable and never questionable. Solid support is also provided by the likes of Stellan and Alexander Skarsgard, John Hurt, Jesper Christiansen and a surprisingly convincing Kiefer Sutherland, far from his usual comfort-zone as gun-toting super-agent Jack Bauer.
What ‘Melancholia’ does so beautifully is its embracive weirdness to the fragile depression of the troubled Justine and eventually, to her sister Claire too. The stunning grace of the lingering nature shots partner well with von Trier’s abrasive story-telling to create an incredibly astonishing odyssey of delicate emotion. Whether you understand all the symbolism or not, ‘Melancholia’ will certainly plant thoughts as to the true nature of the human condition deep within your mind, making it one of the most challenging and exquisite films von Trier has ever created.
Once you accept the radiant photography and sometimes senseless scripting, ‘Melancholia’ truly becomes one of the finest artistic works of the 21st century, making it a must-see for all fans of deeply emotive cinema. It’s quite frankly, a disaster epic with balls, featuring some of the year’s best performances and most demanding set-pieces. A visually perfect artistic masterpiece. Has the master finally returned? Almost certainly so.