The last things a person suffering from severe depression wants to hear are these wonderful phrases: “Everything is going to be okay” and “Why can’t you just be happy for once?” To an outside observer, it might seem strange that a person could be incapable of happiness when there isn’t any visible stress or catastrophe around them. In what might be his most personal film to date, Melancholia, controversial Danish director Lars von Trier faces down what might be his very own demons in a film that’s largely subdued by his own standards in terms of abject shock value, while bursting at the seams with an almost raw level of emotion.
The film is divided into two simply plotted halves. In the first half, newly wedded bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) slowly suffers a mental breakdown over the course of her wedding reception. She grows increasingly distant from her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), and feels alienated around her own family. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is trying in vain to keep everyone at the party happy. Her brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) is in the middle of an ongoing dispute between Justine and her cruelly demanding mother (Charlotte Rampling). Making matters worse, the only person Justine even wants to talk to is her hopelessly self obsessed, but kindly father (John Hurt).
After the disastrous wedding leaves Justine almost terminally shell shocked and damaged, the second half of the film focuses on Claire being forced to care for her emotionally crippled sister, while juggling the needs of her own family. This is the backdrop against which the title takes on the role of being the literal elephant in the room, as a rogue planet named Melancholia makes its way through the atmosphere on a collision course with our world. Claire is sceptical, her husband and son are fascinated by it and can’t look away from it, and Justine is embracing the possibility that all life on Earth could be wiped out at any moment.
Von Trier has always claimed that his lead female characters are often his on screen surrogates, and never has it been more believable than in this film. For a man who claims to be suffering from crippling depression, this feels like a movie made by someone who knows what his lead character feels all too well. The dinner party from hell that opens the film feels precisely like something a person suffering from depression would absolutely hate: a room filled with fake smiles and personal drama that is so petty in the face of greater problems.
The second half of the film still holds to Justine’s bleaker point of view, but it also manages to give a fairly touching look at how depression looks through the eyes of a loved one. Claire isn’t a perfect person, but she certainly is trying to help a sister that can’t even get out of bed to take a bath on her own. In the second half of the film, Von Trier cops to the idea that depression to some degree is an inherently selfish feeling seemingly devoid of any meaning to an outside party. The film becomes just as oddly touching as it is overtly misanthropic.
In addition to Von Trier showing a relative degree of restraint with his material, his true anchors are the revelatory performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg. Dunst, who hasn’t been seen as a serious actress by many since her debut in Interview with the Vampire, portrays Justine as someone who wants to be happy at first (and someone who genuinely does try everything within her power to make it happen) and someone who has firmly given up all hope. Gainsbourg, a Von Trier veteran having worked with him on his last exercise in extreme discomfort Anti Christ, gets to play the straight woman to the showier role Dunst has, but the downplaying of Claire is essential for Von Trier’s points about depression to hold any weight. If Claire was portrayed as someone constantly acting hysterical, the melodrama would outweigh the message.
While Von Trier is certainly no stranger to the Douglas Sirk school of melodramatic filmmaking, Meloncholia is depressing as humanly possible without being showy about it. In many ways, this is his most balanced and fully realized film. The pieces of the story fit together remarkably well and the usual in-your-face style the director has previously used in films like Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves is dialled back considerably. The staging of everything feels natural, and his usual handheld technique finally gives off the voyeuristic feel he has been striving for so long to perfect.
Melancholia is a film that certainly isn’t for everyone, and much like Von Trier’s other work it will get people talking about it with equal fervour over its positives and negatives. One thing is for certain, it’s a film that won’t be forgotten about by the people who see it any time soon.
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Top image: A scene from Melancholia. Courtesy eOne Films.