Melancholia director Lars von Trier is a polarizing figure. This is largely due to the fact that he is completely fucking insane. He semi-accidentally praised the Nazi party at Cannes; he once said that to get a good performance from a female actor, you must be 30% less nice to her than you’d like to be (and the list of actresses who will no longer work with him, or won’t consider it in the first place, bears out his adherence to this philosophy (though to be fair, Kirsten Dunst consistently defends the experience of working with him as a positive one)); and he will only go to places that he can get to by van. His films are no less polarizing than himself, often receiving reviews split almost entirely between “best ever!” and “now I want to kill myself.” (Antichrist is particularly famous for “now I want to kill myself” reviews.) I have a slightly more complicated relationship with both von Trier and his films. His Dogme 95 school of filmmaking was the first example of cinematic thought I ever encountered and engaged with, so I have a sentimental attachment to it for getting me started thinking critically about film. That attachment is buffered by the fact that I loved his narrative documentary on filmmaking, The Five Obstructions. (Caveat: I haven’t seen it since 2003 and don’t know how I’d feel were I to see it now.)
So that’s a little bit about von Trier. I mostly share it for your interest, and because it feels wrong to write about a von Trier film without presenting some of the dialogue surrounding its controversial maker. But none of that dialogue has much to do with Melancholia, a gorgeous if overlong meditation on major depression, resilience, and the inadequacy of human response to great tragedy.
Justine (Dunst) is getting married. She is radiant. Her husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), seems to have a case of Permanent Doofy Grin, he’s so excited. The narrative opens with Justine and Micheal horsing around with the car taking them to their reception, whose driver can’t seem to comprehend concepts like “turns.” They’re goofballs having fun, and we see immediately why they love each other.
But something is off. Justine and Michael are two and a half hours late to their impossibly lavish reception. Upon arrival they are scolded fiercely by two angry, pretty people who we later learn are Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, luminous) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland, magnetic), who are paying for the wedding. Once inside, Justine doesn’t seem able to focus. She keeps running off, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. She hides numerous times. We spend a solid 75 minutes at Justine and Michael’s floundering reception during which it becomes clear that no one, not even the man she married, has any idea how to deal with Justine. Michael’s misunderstanding of her illness, presumably major depression, is heartbreaking in its childish hopefulness and ignorance; Claire can only snipe and judge. In her we see the weariness that comes from day-in-day-out life with someone whose depression is serious and untreated, and I appreciate that von Trier shows us this. Claire, we sense, allowed herself hope: that Justine was going to get better; that Claire would no longer be responsible for her sister’s well-being. But after the farce of a wedding – which is the only thing it could have been, given Michael’s ignorance and Justine’s condition – we have only Claire, Justine, John, and Claire and John’s son Leo, living in the palatial estate that had housed the wedding. The remaining hour-and-a-half leading up to the end of the world by giant planetary collision (this is not a spoiler, it’s in every review and we first learn about it during the two-minute music video that opens the film – wait, did I not mention the music video? there’s a music video) is spent there, in the growing unease coming out of the rise of Melancholia, Earth’s sister planet, which is passing closer to Earth than it has in years.
It’s a weird movie. It’s got a whole sci-fi thing going on what with the two planets. The interplanetary physics are more than broken, and the narrative isn’t a thing that exists, really. But as with so much von Trier, the point isn’t in the narrative or the physics or the realism. No one at any point in the film references psychoactive medication for Justine’s illness, but that’s because the themes von Trier is interested in exploring have nothing to do with medicating depression. He’s interested in how the depressive state affects one’s worldview and interactions with one’s environment, and how in certain environments a depressive state might be an advantage. (Yeah, it gets questionable. We’ll get there.) As Melancholia creeps closer and closer to Earth, he’s interested in how different personality types and mental states react to the spectre of impending doom. And that shit is inneresting, not least of all for how it provides a platform for us to goggle at Charlotte Gainsbourg’s tour de force performance and Kiefer Sutherland’s shocking ability to act as something other than a valiant attacker of Christmas trees.
But it also gets weird, in classic von Trier style. He’s often been derided for his bizarre proto-feminism, and Melancholia certainly has elements of that. In various rococo tableaux – and let me take a moment here to shout out the cinematography and set design undergirding this thing, because holy shit – we see Justine positioned as a savior (indeed, the images begin to feel Christ-like). Her illness, it is implied, allows her to keep her head when those around her are losing theirs. It’s compelling to look to von Trier’s biography to explain this – both he and his leading lady are known to suffer from depression – but that’s ultimately a non-starter. It’s more interesting to engage his argument directly. Personally, I find the female-link-to-the-natural-world and depression-as-enlightenment tropes tired, but goddamn if the whole mess isn’t fantastically compelling.
A great deal of that compulsion resides in and emanates from the film’s visuals. I really want to hammer this home: Melancholia is visually stunning. For the most part it draws on a muted color palette, but the images are no less powerful for their lack of Photoshop-esque supersaturation. Countless frames stand alone as perfectly composed still images, like paintings or photographs; I want to frame half the movie and hang it in my living room. My living room would be depressing. Anyway. It is a sheer aesthetic pleasure just to watch, and on that alone I recommend it.
I would not say I loved Melancholia. As I hope I conveyed, I think it has some decently significant flaws. It’s also not the best movie I saw last year (that goes to the mind-shattering Take Shelter, which I intend to write about soon). But it is without question the most ambitious, risky, broad-minded film I saw last year, and I saw a shit-ton of movies. It has the biggest scope by far, and it is truly art. It is, in my opinion, the Best Picture of 2011.
(And fuck the Oscars this year, seriously. Those noms were so bad I haven’t even bothered to write about them. Fuck them all the way.)