I usually struggle when writing about film to find something useful to write about without giving too much of the movie away. I have stopped watching or reading film reviews (before I see a film) at all – they all take the surprise away. I want to be stunned, if possible.
No such problem with Melancholia – the movie itself tells you the ending in the first few minutes. The director has said he doesn’t want there to be any suspense. He wants everyone to know how the movie ends. It ends with the destruction of the earth.
Since I don’t read film reviews any more I had never heard of Melancholia, even though I have been a semi-fan of the controversial and provocative director Lars von Trier for many years. It came on cable with an irresistible summary – “A woman’s troubled relationship with her sister is complicated by the appearance of a mysterious planet on a collision course with earth.” How could anyone resist a film like that?
The movie is divided into two chapters – each one named after one of the sisters. The first is “Justine” – and it concerns the events surrounding Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception. It’s a fancy, expensive affair, paid for by her sister’s fabulously wealthy brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland), and put together by a strange wedding planner (Udo Keir – he keeps walking by with his hand in front of his face to keep from looking at the bride – she has ruined “his wedding”). There’s the incredibly bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling), the asshole boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and plenty of other colorful characters.
The driving force, however, is Justine’s depression. She is crippled by melancholia to the extent that she often can’t even move. Lars von Trier has said that the movie was inspired by his own bouts with depression which make it impossible for him to work. Justine tries to put on a happy face at her own wedding celebration and to appreciate her husband, but it’s all hopeless. She is doomed.
Kirsten Dunst gives an amazing performance of a woman destroyed by depression, drowning in sadness so deep it can’t be swept away. It is painful to watch, but feels true to life – she helps us understand how she feels and how hopeless it all is.
The second chapter is titled “Claire” and the focus shifts to Justine’s sister as the mysterious planet, ironically named Melancholia appears and skims by the earth. Claire is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – and has already had a long influential career in film, music, and fashion. As the doom earth is about to suffer become more and more obvious the roles of Claire and Justine become reversed.
The ultimate irony of Melancholia is that suffering from crippling depression makes you surprisingly equipped to deal with the end of the world.
So that’s the story of the film. Depressed woman finds out that reality is even worse than what she feared and then everybody dies.
Obviously, this isn’t a tale for everybody. At times it is maddeningly slow, and the lack of hope takes away the suspense that usually feeds a moviegoer’s hunger for entertainment. However, there is a strange beauty in doom, especially cinematic doom, and once the curtain comes down our little blue planet is still spinning out there. There really isn’t a giant killer planet lurking on the other side of the sun and we can take a little joy out of that.
I was surprisingly buoyed by Justine’s struggle (and Dunst’s performance) and her doom will, ultimately, be shared by us all – it’s only a matter of timing. She was able to muster up a little dignity at the end, and that might be enough.