Lars von Trier is a director known for punishing a) women (specifically, the actresses in his films) and b) audiences. His filmography’s a litany of challenging, divisive, and—above all else—disturbing titles: Antichrist, Breaking The Waves, Dancer in The Dark, Dogville, and on and on. When one sits down for a von Trier film, one must prepare oneself to walk out of that film profoundly disturbed. I am all too happy to report that the filmmaker’s latest project—Melancholia—continues this tradition. What’s more: it might be the best film of the year.
Melancholia is a film about depression. If anyone tells you otherwise (say, “Melancholia’s about the end of the world” or “Melancholia’s a drama about two sisters at a wedding”), that person is simply wrong. Lars von Trier has famously struggled with depression in the past, and it appears that the condition’s been on the director’s mind a lot lately. Antichrist was also about depression, but Melancholia’s a helluva lot less visceral and repellant than that film was (no one’s genitals get bolted to a rock in Melancholia, for instance), more about the selfishness of the affliction and the ways that it destroys all who attempt to deal with it.
If you’ve ever attempted to cope with someone afflicted with depression, you know the score: they’re unreachable, often completely detached from everything happening around them. Their loved ones may sympathize, and they may try to help, but there comes a moment in any attempt to provide help where the caregiver breaks: one can only try to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped so much.
In Melancholia, the depressed party is Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and the caregiver is Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We meet Justine on the way to her wedding, along with her husband-to-be, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). They arrive at the sprawling estate of Claire and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), and they are—typically, we gather—late. From the moment this couple enters the wedding, people are walking on eggshells, and at first it appears that their caution is directed at the natural tension that exists between the two sisters and their divorced parents. Soon enough, however, we see that all this worry centers on Justine and her crippling depression.
One wrong thing said by Justine’s mother during the wedding sends her into a tailspin, and before the night’s over, Justine’s entire evening (not to mention her future) will come crashing down around her. Claire, Michael, and Justine’s father do their best to keep her in good spirits—desperately attempting to keep her from falling into that gaping, black hole that she’s always dangling on the precipice of—but it’s a losing battle: she seems determined to ruin the evening for herself, and she succeeds.
Meanwhile, a planet has been discovered just behind the sun. John relays most of the exposition to the audience: Melancholia is the planet’s name, and it’s due to pass very close to the Earth in a matter of days. Claire’s concerned that the planet will strike the Earth, obliterating everything on its surface, but John assures her that they’re safe. Justine, on the other hand, seems drawn to the encroaching planet, compelled by its very existence and the threat that it poses.
The planet is, of course, the biggest cinematic metaphor I’ve seen in some time, but you won’t mind the obviousness of it all: Melancholia the planet is all-encompassing, unescapable, dwarfing life itself as it crosses the cosmos on its collision-course with Earth. Similarly, Justine’s depression is always there, always throbbing beneath the surface even in Justine’s happiest moments. It is—like the planet—unescapable and unstoppable. We see that Justine seems incapable of maintaining any semblance of happiness, and—later in the film—we’ll see that she’s similarly drawn to Melancholia, lying naked in the grass while it speeds towards our planet. She almost appears aroused by the idea, and we understand that Justine is—in some bizarre, impossible-to-understand way—in love with her own depression, even if it’s a subconscious love.
Yes, von Trier is saying a lot in this film.
It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Melancholia does, in fact, strike the Earth, as that happens in the film’s opening sequence (set to a booming, appropriately apocalyptic score). At first, I thought that this was an odd choice on von Trier’s part: if we know that the planet is going to hit the Earth eventually, where would the tension come from in the film’s third act? As it turns out, von Trier mines an enormous amount of tension from the film’s inevitable conclusion. Because we know what’s going to happen, we know that all of John’s assurances about safety are wrong, we know that there’s nowhere for the characters to hide, we know that it’s all for naught. The tension in Melancholia’s final twenty minutes is very nearly unbearable: you’re just waiting for the film to catch up with its opening, and your skin will crawl right off your body in the process. I was deeply, deeply disturbed by this film’s home stretch, and I imagine that a lot of other people will be, too.
Across the board, the performances here are flawless. Dunst turns in what’s easily the finest performance of her career (I’ve never been a fan, but I found her tremendous in this role), while Gainsbourg again proves that—when working with von Trier—she can perform miracles. More surprising is the quiet, understated work done by Alexander Skarsgard (he’s a little less subtle on HBO’s True Blood) and the truly impressive work done by Keifer Sutherland. There’s also a series of meaty supporting roles for John Hurt, Udo Kier (as the put-upon wedding planner), and Alexander’s father, Stellan. Dunst is the star of the show, though, and if I were a betting man, I’d put all my money on her at the Oscars this year.
As for the writing and direction, well, what can I say? This may be my favorite film of the year, and is definitely the best film I’ve ever seen von Trier produce (that said, I’ve never seen Dancer in The Dark, and I’ve heard amazing things about that film). I’ve never seen him in such complete control of the elements at hand: just look at how masterfully he sketches each of the film’s supporting characters during the wedding, telling us everything we need to know in a few scattered lines of dialogue, a few pointed glances. Look at how he handles the film’s (sometimes elaborate) special effects, and how he never turns the end of the world—for, that is what this is—into a popcorn-spectacle. Look at the performances he’s coaxed from his actors. I mean, my God.
More than anything, though, the palpable, damn near suffocating sense of dread that von Trier creates from the very first frame of the film is nothing short of perfection: you will not see a film that wears its “feel bad” aesthetic this well all year (unless, of course, David Fincher somehow manages to topple him with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I’ll allow is possible). I felt beaten up, exhausted, challenged, gutted by this film, and I have no doubt that it will stay with me for a very, very long time. Oddly enough, I can’t wait to see it again.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most moviegoers don’t like to be challenged in the ways that Melancholia will challenge them, which means that—again, if I were a betting man—I wouldn’t put any money on von Trier’s latest film becoming a smash hit. But for those with the stomach for it, this is the most powerful, thought-provoking, profoundly disturbing film of the year. Thank God for Lars von Trier.
My grade? A+