Dir: Lars Van Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland.
“The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. No one will miss it”.
It may be evil but it has never looked so magical. The opening sequence provides such powerful imagery it could stand alone as a single image. A close up on Dunst, her pixie-like face fixing us a haunting stare, as a backdrop of dead birds fall slowly from the sky. Then follows a series of images, movement achingly slow, dramatically lit, odd in their construction but in retrospect, laden with semiotics. The rising dramatics of Wagner’s ‘Overture for Tristan und Isolde’ providing a fitting soundtrack when finally from space we see the earth in line to collide with a newly discovered planet, Melancholia.
So Lars is clearly a fan of a big scene then, as his expulsion from Cannes proved when his claims to “understand Hitler” saw him miss out on attending the festival including seeing Dunst’s well deserved best actress win.
Filmed in two parts the first section sees Justine (Dunst) at her wedding reception at the mansion of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Her dysfunctional parents making brief appearances in a contrast to her supportive new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), who tries his best to keep her spirits up but is left bewildered as she continually goes AWOL from the festivities. In an unusual but brave move for a main theme Justine suffers from clinical depression. Try as she might, the gushing hopeful bride she is not and it seems doubtful that her marriage will even last the night.
The second part of the film reveals the true weight of her depression as Claire does her best to guide Justine through her darkest days, feeding and bathing her. As if this wasn’t enough for poor Claire, there’s also the impending doom of the apocalypse as her small family wait it out on the grand estate, not knowing if they will die in a planetary explosion or if it will just quietly pass them by.
While at first the oppressive nature of Justine’s character seems debilitating, later it seems to afford Justine a particular wisdom, partly because she doesn’t have the energy to react and partly as it gives her an objectiveness from which to observe those around her. She accepts her fate while her sister Claire panics. What use is hope or fear when there’s nothing left to fight for and the end of the world is nigh? With nothing to say and no room for sentiment anything other than detachment seems trivial or pointless.
Lars’s direction is nothing if not dramatic. His films often dividing the critics with their grandiose subjects and treatment and it doesn’t get more epic than the apocalypse, but he grounds and localises this with a focus on the hopelessness and lethargy of depression. Sound like gloomy viewing? Well yes, but it’s also spectacularly beautiful, brilliantly acted and will stay with you long after the credits roll.