The latest film from the enfant terrible of the European arthouse may be the most commercial work yet produced by this mercurial talent. Melancholia is a film about two sisters, Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). Set in and around a country estate hotel and golf club owned by Claire’s wealthy husband John (Sutherland, in his best role since 24's Jack Bauer).
Divided into two halves, the film’s first section shows the events of one night as the hotel is given over to Justine’s lavish wedding reception. As friends, colleagues and family gather the event gradually spins out of control due to Justine’s depression and the eruption of simmering resentments between the guests. The second section deals with the aftermath of these events as Claire tries to help Justine out of her illness, but is herself revealed to be recovering from past mental traumas (these are never made explicit, but she is often referred to by her brusque husband as “sensitive”).
If this all sounds like a simple domestic drama, you should know that looming in the background (and then very much taking centre stage) is the rogue planet Melancholia, a massive world passing through our solar system. Hidden behind the sun on its approach, Melancholia threatens to collide with the Earth, extinguishing all life in a cataclysmic extinction level event.
It is clear from the films’ pre-credits opening that this is not going to be a standard drama. Von Trier begins with a cinematic overture, a series of stunning images shot in super slow motion. Among them: Gainsbourg running across a golf green carrying a child as her feet sink into the earth; Dunst walking in a billowing wedding dress encumbered by Lovecraftian tendrils of darkness; a horse collapsing on a well kept lawn. These images are accompanied by thundering music from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.
This is going to be a divisive work, and many people are going to fall completely for its doomed classicism. Equally there will be many viewers grumpily thinking to themselves that John seems like the only character in the film talking a lick of sense. I was unconvinced by the depiction of depression presented by Justine; often her character comes across as cruel in her relationships with Claire and her hopeless fiancé (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), or ridiculously histrionic (as when she eats a mouthful of the meatloaf Claire has prepared as comfort food and wails “it tastes of ashes!”).
Justine tells Claire that she welcomes the end of the world, that life is only on Earth and it is evil. It’s hard to judge if von Trier agrees, as he never shows a world beyond the plush country club and hotel. Apart from the hotel manager and a tart performance from Udo Kier as a very expensive wedding planner, the only characters on display are of wealth and privilege. In all honesty, they could all use a good slap, but the end of life on earth seems an excessive punishment. Still this is von Trier and it’s perfectly possible he has his tongue in his cheek (although I suspect he is more serious about his art than his public image suggests).
Throughout the film von Trier borrows images and ideas from the fine art. Melancholia seems to exemplify some of the central tenets of the German Sturm und Drang movement, which prized individual subjectivity and extremes of emotion in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. There are further images and ideas taken from 18th century romanticism, and the Pre-Raphelites. I don’t have an art history degree, but even I couldn’t help but be struck by his appropriation of John Everett Millais’ painting Ophilia. It’s not just in the use of Wagner and the direct appropriation of images from fine art that lend weight to this reading, von Trier is more sympathetic towards Justine and Claire (both characters who are given to extremes of emotion) than the rational John, who is convinced that because the majority of scientific opinion holds that Melancholia presents no threat to the Earth, then it must be so.
I can’t claim to be an authority on classical art, but it is impossible to watch this film and not recognise at least some of the references that are in there. After Tarantino and Grindhouse’s plundering of B-movies and exploitation, it is somewhat refreshing to see a filmmaker decide to ransack an art gallery rather than a comic store for inspiration. If the Tate were to run a lecture on the art being referenced here and it’s meaning, I would be first in line.
If Melancholia were hanging around the student union bar it would be wearing a black poloneck, smoking expensive imported Gauloise cigarettes and acting all superior. I found the film preposterous and cold but undeniably well made and it does achieve moments of grace, beauty and power unlike any other film I’ve seen this year.
SECOND OPINION | Jacqui Barr ★★★★★ There is nothing wrong with my husband’s review of Melancholia, except for just how wrong it is. Lars’s rich visual engagement is so beautiful and often profound, that images from the film stay with you long after the final credits roll. Love it or hate it, (and Melancholia is not really a sit-on-the-fence film), I guarantee you will have a response to it. And that is why I love the film and the director both.
Lars doesn’t make films that you have forgotten about by the time you reach the exit, or shuffle out of the cinema saying "yeah, that was alright" – he makes films that will have you arguing furiously all the way home. And then possibly in bed. And then again the next day and for a couple of months afterwards. (OK, that is possibly just a portrait of our own loving marriage, but you get my point.)
Okay I will concur that the film is made at what I like to think of as a "different frequency" to many others, but you will forgive Lars’s tendency towards high-pitched hysteria, because ultimately what he delivers is an unforgettable masterpiece. My dearly beloved is right, this is not a "standard drama"; it is an opera, an old master, a silent film... It is a lesson in what big, bold filmmaking looks like when you dare to let rip.
I believe we throw the term "auteur" around awfully lightly these days, but in Lars’s work he proves he is one, not because he merely adopts a certain style of filmmaking and then sticks to it, but because whatever he does he leaps at it with bold and persistent courage. Melancholia has reams to say – it doesn’t matter if it all makes sense. Yes, there are some wrong notes. In fact, again I happen to agree with Stuart about some of the more wince-making moments, including one whole ill-advised section where Kirsten’s character Justine seems to lay claim to some mystical powers.
Overall I felt that the film tackles it’s subject matter with real compassion. The world is ending, but ultimately the minutæ of the character’s relationships is what it is about – because that is what life is. This is a world seen through the eyes of a depressive and her sister, therefore it is riddled with complexities of devotion and conflict.
From the opening sequence, which is an over-the-top but visually stunning statement of intent, you will know straight away whether this film is for you or not. Look around you, are you one of the slack jawed awed types, or the people pointing at the screen and going "really?", because your reaction to those first two minutes I guarantee will define what you think about this film.
Immediately you are asked to be in awe of the central couple, as they appear to be the personification of a perfect, happy, beautiful couple in love. However as we watch them disintegrate over time, Lars is completely unafraid to play with how you feel about them. He pushes and pulls at your affection for each of the characters until you may have made a complete 180 on your opinion of them.
This film may be entirely under the control of its director, but it is reliant on the strength of the performances. Fortunately it is cast beautifully and drips with classy performances from everyone involved. So, if you want my opinion, which admittedly you may not, do not listen to my husband’s grudging admission of mere ‘moments’ of grace, beauty and power. This film has those in spades.
It is not a 3-star movie, it is a 5-star cinematic juggernaut.