Lars von Trier is an interesting director. His films are never less than projects – full-blown, high-concept, often dazzlingly audacious and over-the-top things, almost to the point of absurdity. The problem is, I’m never quite sure whether he’s made a genuinely good film. He’s made a bunch of very interesting ones, sure, and Melancholia is no exception: There are some moments in it that are so staggeringly good that I was left quite literally breathless, and there are moments that left me almost completely cold. What we have here is a companion piece to 2009’s Antichrist without half of that film’s histrionics, and it’s probably von Trier’s best film since his magnum opus, 2003’s Dogville. But whether it’s actually good rightly remains open to debate.
Melancholia is a film in two parts: the first, entitled “Justine”, is set entirely at the wedding reception of it’s titular character (Kirsten Dunst) who, due to her severe depression, isn’t having the best time. It’s shot with relative realism in realism as her mental health sabotages her big day and threatens to alienate her from everyone she loves, with special attention given to place and character: the country manor in which the film is set is a character in itself, and it has the feel of an ensemble piece a la Festen or Altman’s A Wedding.The second part, entitled “Claire”, is an entirely different beast. With a planet passing dangerously close to Earth, Gainsbourg’s Claire is filled with anxiety at losing the happy life that she’s cultivated, whereas Dunst seems entirely content with the proceedings, proclaiming “The Earth is evil” and lying around naked on rocks and such. The cast here is much smaller, just Gainsbourg, Dunst, a hilariously over-the-top Kiefer Suthlerland and their son, and the ensemble feel of the first half is replaced by a palpable sense of isolation and, yes, melancholy.
I imagine most people will prefer the first, character-driven, more realistic half of Melancholia, but for me the second part wins by a country mile. Not that the first half doesn’t have plenty going for it: the ensemble is excellent, each playing their parts for all their worth whilst keeping it realistic. Dunst in particular displays a talent I had no idea she was capable of, handling her character’s depression with a sensitivity and nuance rarely seen in such characters. It reminded me of Birgit Minichmayr’s staggering performance in last year’s Everyone Else – volatile and self-hating one moment, radiant the next. The real problem is with the script. The people in his film just don’t talk the way people do in real life, undermining the realism of the whole thing. Sometimes what comes out of the character’s mouths is so silly that I wasn’t sure if it was von Trier’s idea of a joke, and if it was, then I’m not sure such ironic winks at the audience really works when you’re trying to root an outlandish, sci-fi concept in a relatable world.
The second half, on the other hand, benefits from such melodramatic, absurd dialogue: melodrama seems appropriate when a planet is about to crash into the Earth. The second half of the film is studded with fascinating ideas and haunting visuals: muddy ground covered with insects, snow falling through bright sunlight, a coil of wire used to see how quickly the planet is advancing on ours. I’ve never really seen an apocalypse done this way before on film. Instead of mass panic and fire and bloodshed we have loneliness, anxiety, and a genuine sense of loss. The physical apocalypse matters, yes, but it’s the emotional apocalypse that really makes Melancholia unique, meaning that its astonishingly powerful climax offers us genuine catharsis.
However, both parts of the film pale in comparison to the film’s prologue. Set to Wagner’s Overture to Tristan und Isolde (which he uses over and over again for some reason), von Trier presents us with a series of striking super-slow-motion near-tableaux, each one reflecting and magnifying events in the film proper. Each one is beautiful and haunting and entirely unique, and the sequence feels quite unlike anything I’ve ever really seen before. For all his flaws and indulgences, it’s moments like this that mean I can never lose patience with Von Trier entirely. Even though Melancholia is a bit of a mess and not entirely successful, it’s still wildly ambitious and absolutely unique, and that alone makes it worth your time.