“The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it,” is a symbolic line from ‘Melancholia,’ delivered from the lips of the melancholic. Melancholia by definition is a mental condition marked by persistent depression and ill-founded fears. Director/Writer Lars von Trier uses the condition and some imagination to craft a story akin to the recent, equally as abstract and obtuse Tree of Life (2011). Lars von Trier’s latest venture is an apocalyptic, psychological disaster film in which a planet named Melancholia (that’s been hiding behind the sun) is in orbit and on a collision course with Earth. Von Trier makes no reservations about the type of film he’s created as Earth is destroyed upon impact in a slow motion sequence that opens the two-part story, with blaring classical music by Richard Wagner (music from “Tristan and Isolde”). Problem is, von Trier needs a tripod and about twenty minutes less film.
The two-part story (presented as a retrospective leading up to Earth’s destruction) begins with “Justine,” and begins to explore the relationship between sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), both of whom begin and end in different places, physically and psychologically. Justine has everything, an adoring fiancée named Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a wedding that would “cost most people an arm and a leg,” and a promising career as an art director. Through the course of her wedding reception, however, Justine’s life begins to unravel under the pressure of the evening as depression overcomes her and she becomes estranged from those who love her most. Claire insists Justine pulls it together and refrains from causing a scene, though the dysfunction of the entire event is scene enough. The damage is already done and by the end of part one, Justine has become entirely self-destructive, clinging only to her nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr) and his wishful, magical ideas.
Part two (“Claire”) explores the life of Justine’s sister Claire. Claire becomes the weaker character through vulnerability and paranoia of the impending doom. Post-engagement, Justine slides into a deep depression and a state of dependency, forcing her to live with Claire, her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and nephew. Over time, Justine calms as chaos nears and becomes more cynical with the passing days – she begins to appear stronger and lucid as the world and people around her slip into paranoid disarray. Justine becomes more intuitive and “knows,” like the birds, horses and insects, while Claire becomes increasingly weaker and emotional because she fears for not only her life, but the lives of her family. Soon, the only saving grace is found by Leo and his ideas of salvation in a magical cave as the psychological world around him crumbles.
Save for a few members of the cast, the primary acting is superb. Kirsten Dunst executes her responsibilities magnificently, creating an authentic feel to the character and subtly allows Justine to arc from passive victim to content aggressor. She’s believable in a sincere fashion, easily translating her pain and uncertainties to the audience. Cameron Spurr (Leo) also does a great job as a child actor, making his debut, embracing the wonders of childhood (space, for example) and maintaining hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. Each character (and the entire film, really) presents unanswerable questions about life and existence. It’s one of those movies that begs the question “What would life be like for those around me if I never existed?” Think about it – try to imagine life around you without you. The result is unfathomable and actually quite depressing. But these characters exist in a film asking this question on a grander scale, what would the universe be like with no life at all? A universe without gravity or air, without people, horses, birds or insects. While the idea is complicated it causes the film to feel like a genuine exploration of a melancholic’s psyche (and perhaps a personal commentary by von Trier himself?).
Admirable acting, intriguing story and dazzling imagery only do part of the work, though. Von Trier’s most intentional mistake (if you will) is that he utilizes a handheld camera (yes, we have him and a few other filmmakers to thank for this Dogme principle), which appears sloppy in parts and seems senseless considering the potential a steady version would have had. Another unfortunate occurrence is the film’s pacing which is slow and in parts wanders endlessly beneath blaring, classical sounds of Richard Wagner (clearly to create discomfort). But despite its few mistakes, ‘Melancholia’ succeeds on the identified strengths and on its thought-provoking nature.
“Life on Earth is evil.” Is it? Or is it magnificent? You be the judge. ‘Melancholia’ is rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content and language and runs 136 minutes.
In limited release November 11, 2011.