Melancholia is quite simply a film about depression that blends a person dealing with depression that expands out to the actual destruction of the Earth by another planet. Neatly divided into three parts with a super slow motion collection of set pieces at the beginning followed by two named parts (Justine and Claire), it dives deep into the end of the world as it puts the characters through stresses that reveal who they really are. It’s beautifully shot and well-acted and I saw it twice in the theatre and thoroughly enjoyed it both times.
I was hesitant in seeing it since I’ve found Lars Von Trier to be provocative to the point of distraction which also happened with this film, but the content and reaction to the film made me want to see it and I’m glad that I did. Europa was the first film by him that I saw and it was a great art-house experience for me and this seemed to be in a similar vein. His documentary The Five Obstructions is also one of my favourite films about the filmmaking process, so maybe it wouldn’t be as frustrating as the last Von Trier film I saw, which was Manderlay.
Visually Melancholia is quite stunning with seamless special effects. After seeing it I thought of how it touched on similar themes as The Tree of Life, but with a much darker view of the universe. A version of Malick’s film made by an atheist. While there is the overwhelming nature of the end of the world approaching (it’s not a spoiler since you see the end in the first 10 minutes of the film) what is fascinating is watching the characters deal with impending disaster. The first part of the film is the wedding of Justine which is a family disaster that sets the stage for the dynamics of the relationships between the key characters. After that disaster comes the second section which removes all the supporting characters from the mansion as the sky fills with the planet Melancholia.
The wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is carefully organized by Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but Justine is late and constantly subverts the precisely-timed events that make up the reception. We know that this is not going to end well and the transition between Justine’s part of the film and Claire’s occurs when Justine's depression becomes incapacitating. Claire has to take care of her sister and things only get better when it starts to become clear that the world is going to end, which seems to comfort Claire as she embraces the approaching destruction while Justine finds it more and more difficult to deal with.
There are all sorts of metaphorical levels and details with allusions to other films and filmmakers, but it keeps the focus on the characters who provide a nice counterpoint to the much larger events happening outside of their control. The little visual nods to other films are touches that add texture to a film that inverts the disaster movie by staying with the people instead of the events. It’s bold and ambitious and it worked well for me and seeing it on a large screen was great in seeing the smallest concerns combined with the existence of all life on Earth. This is the type of film that makes me love going to the theatre