Visionary Danish film director Lars von Trier has done it again! – With Melancholia he has created yet another gem in his catalogue of stimulating films. It is no secret that Trier likes to provoke, and the majority of this film’s publicity has been created through his Nazi-related comments at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – something which left him the first ever persona non grata from the festival. Unfortunately, this incident came to overshadow the film itself which never really got the special attention it deserved.
Melancholia tells the apocalyptic tale of two sisters and their last days on Earth as a blue planet called Melancholia threatens to collide with Earth. The plot consists of three sections: a prologue which places the spectator in the middle of an apocalyptic dream, part 1 which sets up life at its fullest as it follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at her immense wedding party, and ultimately part 2 where focus switches to Justine’s big sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) who descends into a state of fear and paranoia as Melancholia is rapidly approaching Earth.
With the prologue the spectator is instantly made aware that this is not your average film about an apocalypse. The highly stylized setting and cinematography reveals a beauty in this event, a beauty which extends to the rest of the film. ‘Dance of Death’ is what the planet approaching Earth is named, and this phrase can also be used to describe the overall concept of the film. The film is stylistically graceful, and treats its subject with care and attention, while the incorporation of Richard Wagner’s classical prelude to Tristan und Isolde makes a sinuous foundation on which the film can rely. The inevitability of where the plot leads us is revealed in the prologue, and by structuring it this way Trier forces the spectator not to focus on what will happen at climax, but to enjoy the beauty of the ride, and to leave more room to explore the emotionality of the characters.
Kirsten Dunst won many awards for her performance as Justine in this film; and entirely well deserved. Dunst has finally shed her young girl image completely, and as is evident from this film, she has come out as a more mature and expressive actress. She excels as the depressive bride who in turn pushes people away and requires love and attention, and especially her childish fascination with her father is spot on. Charlotte Gainsbourgh carries her part as the mature and rational older sister who is trying to come to terms with a potential apocalypse elegantly. Even though she plot-wise does not have much to work with, she does provide the same strength of performance which she showed in Antichrist, and cements that she has got a look and a style very much compatible with the provocative and depressed Trier-universe.
Trier has gained wide recognition as a writer and director mainly on the basis of his ability to push boundaries, and shape his audiences emotions, yet in Melancholia his innovation is not as convincing as usual. Part 1, with its strong references to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, is powerful because it with several subplots keeps the emotionality of the characters on edge, while the second part lacks much of this immediacy as Gainsbourgh does not have much to work with. It does take guts to rely on such a simple plot, and even though all actors and actresses do a great job, they can only carry the film so far before there is nothing left for the film to do but having to rely on its visual spectacle.
Trier is a very conscious filmmaker, and consequently the visuals in this film are central in setting up the universe of the film. It can be seen as a continuing of his previous Antichrist, in as much as it deals with similar themes, such as evil in nature, female sexuality, and finally science which man tries to constrain nature within. While the symbolic use of the planet Melancholia creates a frame that pins down a tension between the two different world views which the sisters stand for: life as a blessing versus life as a curse, it also adds to the visual splendour of the film and reveals a certain universality. In revealing the dysfunctional family dynamics in part 1 of the film, the film sets up to support Justine’s depressed position, and Melancholia end up being more or less a celebration of the world coming to an end, a celebration of mans release from the restraints of society. Knowing that Trier struggles with depression, this provocative position though is not surprising.
Overall Melancholia is a good film from Trier, but it doesn’t bring as much new to the table as one could have expected from a filmmaker who has build his career on the attitude that challenging oneself will make you push boundaries. It does not contain the same high level of emotional intensity that Trier has proved to be the master of and does come to feel a bit lengthy at times, yet the sublime performances, the elegance of the execution of the plot, and its lavished style makes this visual ‘dance of death’ one to watch!