Written and directed by Lars von Trier, Melancholia is the story of a young woman’s wedding ceremony is threatened by a planet that is set to collide with Earth as the bride goes into a deep depression while her sister begins to worry about the planet. The film is the second part of an unofficial trilogy that explores depression that was preceded by von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, and Stellan Skarsgard. Melancholia is an extraordinary yet intoxicating film from Lars von Trier.
Arriving late to their own wedding reception, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive at the castle as they meet their guests. While Justine’s boss/Michael’s best man Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) and Justine’s father make grand speeches, Justine’s mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) shows her distaste towards weddings. The mood changes as Justine suddenly falls into a deep depression as her older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) notices as she tries to get Justine to lighten her mood as Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) also tries to get her to improve her mood. Still, Justine feels out of it as Jack sends his new assistant Tim (Brady Corbet) to get a tag line from her for an ad. With the party winding down, things begin to unravel as Justine’s depression worsens as the night ends in disaster.
Going horseback riding with Claire, Justine notices that a star she had seen the night before is gone as they see a large planet emerge. Claire becomes worried about the planet while Justine’s depression worsens though she is drawn to the planet as is Claire’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Though John claims that the planet will just pass by, Claire doesn’t think so as Justine’s mood becomes erratic and un-natural due to the presence of the planet. Notably as she claims that life on Earth is evil as the family watches the planet at night where John believes it’s moving away. Later that morning, the inevitable starts to appear as the two sisters react differently to what is going to happen.
What happens when a planet is set to collide with Earth and all of its existence cease to exist? How will anyone react to this situation? Well, Lars von Trier doesn’t really give any answers although he does bring some suggestions about how would a person react to a situation like this where all it would eventually lead to is death. The film is split into two different parts representing the two sisters and their own reactions to everything around them. The first half is about Justine and her own descent towards depression. The second half is about Claire and her anxiety about the fact that the world is going to end. Of course, the ending is very obvious as there’s no deux ex machina or anything to twist things up. Instead, it’s all about how one reacts to the inevitable.
The script that von Trier creates is truly ambitious but also very accessible in the way he studies anxiety and depression. Something the director has known to deal with throughout his entire career, notably in recent years as he was open about the way he dealt with his on-going depression and anxieties. He uses both subjects as a way to react to the idea that the world is going to end in his narrative structure. The first half is about a young woman at her own wedding suddenly falling into her own depression. There, she begins to feel detached to the people around her while wandering around all by herself unsure of what to do. In the second half, she begins to behave erratically while all of the things that happens to a depressed person starts to unveil such as the way people taste food or reacting to things in a certain way.
While both depression and anxiety are evident in both halves of the film, the anxiety portion of the film in the older sister becomes more evident in the second half. There, we have this woman starting to become frightened about the idea that the world is going to end and there won’t be any life after that. She would eventually fall apart and become worried about the people around her while her own depressed sister would realize that since everyone is going to die. The best thing to do is just accept it and get it over with. It’s the way von Trier handled these themes into a grand situation like this that is very engaging and also very realistic to the way people would react to something like the end of the world.
The direction of von Trier is definitely more fluid and hypnotic than anything he had done in his career. While he utilizes some of the visual tricks he cultivated with Antichrist, it’s done in a more refined manner to emphasize the way Justine and Claire react to Melancholia. The film opens with this amazing eight-minute sequence of images of characters reacting to the end of the world as the planet Melancholia is about to collide with Earth. Everything is presented in slow motion and into these beautiful that is inter-cut with the planet setting to collide and destroy Earth. Then the film returns to its main narrative which is split into two parts as von Trier allows the camera to observe everything that is happening.
While there is bits of humor prevalent throughout the film such as the way the wedding planner (Udo Kier) responds to the bride or the way the butler (Jesper Christensen) reacts to everything that is going on. The direction is always engaged to situations while maintaining a straightforward approach to the presentation with hand-held cameras for the wedding and other scenes. For all the scenes involving Melancholia, it’s all about the minimal amount of visual effects used to emphasize that a planet is coming to end everything. While von Trier has stated that this film has no happy ending, he’s right though depending on how a viewer will react to that is different. Overall, von Trier creates what is truly a solid film that is probably his most accessible work to date.
Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Caro does an excellent job with the film‘s photography by emphasizing the use of blue to display Melancholia from above as well as to create a mood that surrounds Justine. There is also a more heightened look as the colors look a little brighter for some of the daytime scenes while using yellow lights for some of the interior and exterior nighttime settings to display more haunting shots during the film‘s first half. Editor Molly Malene Stensgaard does a great job with the editing in maintaining a straightforward style for the main narrative of the film while utilizing some jump-cuts in some places while the opening sequence is presented in a slow but elegant approach to emphasize the dread that is to occur.
Production designer Jette Lehman and art director Simone Grau Roney do a fantastic job with the set pieces created for many of the interiors while all the exteriors are shot at the Tjoloholm Castle in Halland, Sweden. Costume designer Manon Rasmussen does a nice job with the costume design for the look of the wedding gown that Justine wears to the dress that Claire wears for the wedding while the rest of the clothes is more casual. Visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth does an amazing job with the visual effects created such as the planet Melancholia and the scenes in space which is truly gorgeous to look at.
Sound designer Kristian Eidnes Andersen does a superb job with the sound work to create an intimacy and liveliness for the wedding reception as well as something sparse for some of the exteriors. The film’s soundtrack features a lot of music that is played on the wedding while the rest of the music is largely dominated by excerpts of Richard Wagner’s Tristan une Isolde to play up the dramatic moments of the film for both Justine and Claire.
The cast that is created for the film is brilliant as it features appearances from a few regulars of von Trier in Udo Kier as a flamboyant wedding organizer, Stellan Skarsgard as Justine’s slimy boss Jack, and John Hurt as Justine’s fun-going father. Other notable small roles include Brady Corbet as Jack’s young trainee, Jesper Christensen in a low-key role as a butler, and Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s bitter mother. Cameron Spurr is very good as Claire’s young son Leo who is amazed by the planet while being the only person that can comfort Justine. Alexander Skarsgard is also good as Justine’s new husband Michael who tries to deal with her sudden melancholic state while trying to cheer her up. Kiefer Sutherland is excellent as John, Claire’s logical husband who tries to tell everyone that Melancholia will pass by only to realize that there is no logical conclusion to the end of the world.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is great as Claire, Justine’s older sister who tries to help her younger sister while dealing with Melancholia that brings her a lot of anxieties. While it’s a less frantic role than the one Gainsbourg played previously in Antichrist, it is still a mesmerizing performance for the way she reacts while having some great rapport with Sutherland and Kirsten Dunst. Finally, there’s Kirsten Dunst who definitely gives the best performance of her career. Dunst’s performance is very entrancing from the way she reacts at a very nonchalant, numbing state of mind. Definitely inspired by her well-publicized depression in 2008, Dunst uses that experience to create something that is very real and direct about how one deals with depression as there’s a fearlessness in Dunst that is very hypnotic as she is definitely a major highlight of the film.
Melancholia is a powerful yet enthralling film from Lars von Trier that features radiant performances from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. While it may not be as extreme as its predecessor Antichrist, it is a film that truly studies the idea of the way people might react to situations such as the end of the world. For fans of von Trier, the film is definitely his most richest work to date as well as something that people new to von Trier might be intrigued by for the way he presents the ideas of depression and anxiety in such an accessible way. In the end, Lars von Trier creates another outstanding film with Melancholia.
Lars von Trier Films: The Element of Crime - Epidemic - Medea - Europa - The Kingdom I - Breaking the Waves - The Kingdom II - Dogme #2-Idioterne - Dancer in the Dark - The Five Obstructions - Dogville - Manderlay - The Boss of It All - Antichrist - Nymphomaniac - The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier
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