Both awesome and maddening, for it is easy to love it and hate it at the same time. Melancholia is Lars von Trier’s latest avante-garde spectacular inserting naturalistic human behavior into an end of the world scenario. Von Trier’s prologue of awesome poetry and romanticized cataclysm is perceivably Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) subjective imagination, followed by two divided chapters of a wedding and the days following after. The first half is maddeningly overlong. And because we are uncertain of the context post-prologue of whether the involved people know or don’t know of the encumbering planet named Melancholia, the whole section is diminished of poignancy. As the second half unveils, von Trier grips you with insurmountable dread. This is a film where you might enjoy thinking more about it afterwards than you enjoy watching it, but it is worth the agony.
Unfolding entirely on a vast mansion that recalls the opulent spread in “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), Dunst and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are the last to arrive at their reception. Justine’s sister is the begrudging Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) owns the estate and reminds the ungrateful that he funded the wedding. The dysfunctional parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) trade off in toasts that begin as flattery and end in spitefulness. Justine loses interest in her own wedding and confesses that she is trudging through it.
While mordantly funny passages are found, you nevertheless spend the entire chapter listening closely for characters to acknowledge the stars and to comment on Melancholia. And listening may not be enough, for this is one where you have to be able to read between the lines. Even for a spoiled princess like Justine, knowing that it could be the last wedding you would expect her to seize every moment of this great ritzy party held in her honor. But von Trier is saying something through Justine about melancholy, indifference, and anhedonia (the inability to find enjoyment in anything).
Claire is busy breaking into pieces in the second half, succumbing to irresolute crisis. Thus, the effects of living in fear. But Justine does not show fried nerves at all, and has a beautiful liberating moment to herself (she’s naked under the stars, and von Trier lights her like a painting of a Greek Goddess, Orphelia or Europa namely). So exquisitely laid out and embalmed in reflected light of the stars, it’s surely her defining moment of solace. Claire looks for relief from her husband but his reassuring words dwindle when they should calm. Also beside is her little boy who is at all times obedient, whose sole curiosity is to peer through the telescope aimed at the skies and the looming Melancholia.
Time and time again, von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Antichrist”) proves himself a powerhouse director that puts you through an emotional grinder. He puts his version of the truth on-screen, which means proliferating characters that are self-centered, petty, desperate, self-alienating and miserly (on the contrary, you can find at times a person virtuous to perfection in a von Trier film). You should be glad that you are not a miser on par with who’s here. And if it were up to you, wouldn’t you hold a loved one’s hand to the end if that was what was asked of you? Anyway, you hold on tight for the end to see what brilliance von Trier will present. He brings forth visual brilliance, and your jaw will drop.
135 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / MIND-BENDER / FOOD FOR THOUGHT MOVIE
Film Cousins: “Testament” (1983); “Children of Men” (2006); “The Road” (2009); “Antichrist” (2009).