A planetary collision would, in most cases, be the cause of severe depression, and it seems that’s exactly what’s happened to the majority of characters in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Sit back and be amazed as Kirsten Dunst’s character undergoes a nihilistic crisis. Gaze in awe as a giant planet the collective human race seems to have somehow overlooked hurtles towards Earth. This movie puts the fun back in dysfunctional.
The opening scene is a poignant montage of distress set to the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The shots of the cast at first seem to be similar in their mood, yet unrelated as a whole, but their significance will become clearer as the movie progresses. And closing out the sequence is a shot of the Earth getting swallowed up by another planet.
Thus begins part one, titled “Justine”. The first part is all about a wedding reception at a huge mansion, which the bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are late to. While Justine on the surface looks glowing and happy, it becomes obvious later that she’s suffering from severe depression.
They finally sit down at the reception and the true extent of familial love becomes clear. Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) hates the very idea of marriage and berates her about hers, Justine’s father (John Hurt) shows up drunk with women on each arm, and leaves before he’s of any actual help to Justine and her growing depression, and Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells her, “I really hate you sometimes.” With a family this supportive, how can she be depressed?
Needless to say, Justine makes some strange and seemingly irrational choices during the reception, which cause Michael and some of the more caring members of her family to worry about her. She runs off multiple times, and is often borderline antagonistic to the people around her. Most notably, she repeatedly rebuffs her new husband’s advances, then ends up having sex with another guy out on the mansion’s golf course (while still in her wedding dress, of course).
This reception takes up nearly half the movie, and also has a running subplot about how Justine works as an ad copy editor, and her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) both hires and fires her replacement over the course of the evening. This, along with the handheld cameras and improvisational nature gives this lengthy sequence the feeling of an especially deranged episode of The Office. But some of it is funny, from a dark comedy perspective, so laugh now before it’s too late.
The next morning at dawn, Justine rides horses with her sister Claire, and then looks up at the sky and notices that one star is no longer visible.
Next up is part two: “Claire”, which appears to take place months or years later. The movie switches focus to Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) trying to support Justine, who’s just a step away from living life as a vegetable, sleeping all day and unable to do anything even as basic as walking.
Eventually, we learn there’s been news of a giant blue rogue planet called Melancholia that’s supposed to get really close to Earth but not hit it. Claire seems to be the only one concerned about the possibility that the planet might hit, while John continually reassures her that it’s going to pass them by. For her part, Justine doesn’t seem to be terribly worried either, though it seems her mindset is more along the lines of “life on Earth sucks anyway, who’s going to miss it?”
The looming planet appears to have affected everything. Animals begin to act strangely, the atmosphere starts to change, and everybody gets even more depressed. Even the weather starts going wild, raining one minute and clear the next. Or maybe the movie just secretly takes place in Scotland, who knows.
What follows is plenty of scenes of Claire freaking out, Justine not really giving a crap and acting weird (at one point, she strips down naked so she can bask in the glow of Melancholia), and John trying to keep everyone calm. But thanks to the intro, we all know exactly how this movie ends.
True to the title, Melancholia really is depressing, if that wasn’t apparent enough by now. Really depressing, that is. Tough to watch all the way through in one sitting depressing. There are sadder, more emotional movies, but this one ranks pretty high on the scale of completely bleak outlooks. It’s all made even bleaker by the revelation that’s shown in the first five minutes of the film: that it most certainly will not end well for anyone. With a “journey, not the destination” mindset, Melancholia relies mostly on the actions, reactions, and interactions of the characters to push things along and keep interests held, which it does well for the most part.
However, the absolute dreariness that the characters express is what makes the film feel like it drags on for an absurdly long amount of time. And yet, there’s no way a film like this could have been more fast-paced. That realization provides a sort of paradoxical viewing experience. Watching this movie is a bit like gripping a thorny rose—it may be beautiful, but two and a half hours of it is still rather painful.
I think it goes without saying, but depressed characters are not fun to be around, or watch. Especially when they get in a mood where they think everything is pointless, and swing wildly from nigh-comatose to sarcastically jeering. That is to say, Justine wears on the nerves after a while. The other characters really aren’t too likeable either, including Claire. Most of the likeable characters don’t stick around for long, leaving far too much time for bundles of joy like Justine to try to make everyone feel as bad as possible about everything, on top of the world ending. Again, it’s the main point of the film to be depressing and have somber, melancholy characters, but still that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to watch.
Melancholia is the work of Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, who’s a true talent, but he primarily seems to be trying to provoke controversy with his movies, bordering a bit on being a cinematic troll. In fact, when he was promoting this film at Cannes along with Dunst and Gainsbourg, he famously trolled the press by calling himself a Nazi and expressing an understanding of Hitler.
Trier later blamed his statements on having fallen into a deep depression. In fact, this movie is part of a “depression trilogy” of films starring Gainsbourg; the latest being the five and a half hour Nymphomaniac. The first entry, 2009’s Antichrist, is mostly known for being a tale of genital mutilation with a random talking fox in the middle of it. Melancholia is nowhere near as unpleasant to watch as Antichrist, but one does get the feeling that Trier is intentionally trying to anger people looking for a more conventional sci-fi tale of characters facing the end of the world (the same way Antichrist disappointed people looking for more conventional horror, and Nymphomaniac disappointed those looking for pure titillation).
Despite the movie’s subject matter, it’s surprisingly a visual feast. The special effects are great, and really add a great deal to the movie’s impact. The cinematography is stunning and captures the feelings of the characters. The use of Wagner’s piece throughout the movie also adds to the mystical elegance—though classical music tends to have that effect when used correctly. The movie manages to somehow convey a meaningful message through artistic expression of absolute despair.
Melancholia is a stylish film with a poignant message and is worth checking out, but maybe not the best choice for Sunday family movie night. It’s a tough watch, but it pays off by the end. There aren’t many movies that show the wracking mental strain and effects of depression like Melancholia, or even many other movies that embody depression this way. The interesting (yet slightly frustrating) characters are what really drives this piece as a drama, and what holds everything together between all the doom and gloom. Good story though it may be, there certainly is no happy ending here.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]