Melancholia - movie review
Who's saying what
Un/fortunately, that's not how the game works, and Melancholia deserves more than that.
Of course, I never awaited the end of the world at the hands of a passing planet, but it's not a stretch to see that scenario - though it is very real for the characters in the film - as a metaphor for the sort of catastrophic thinking that can typify a deep depression.
When I was as low as Justine (Kirsten Dunst), I couldn't wear high heels, as I was convinced I would fall from them, smash my head open, and die slowly on the footpath. Death via high-heels, the end of the world; same diff, really, and all of this is a roundabout way of saying that in Melancholia, Lars von Trier and Dunst have created one of the most striking and truthful cinematic depictions of depression that I have seen.
Before the narrative begins, von Trier offers a remarkable prologue: in extreme slow motion, a series of vignettes unfold to the tune of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde. A bride drags herself across a landscape, held back by sinister, wooly vines. A horse sinks to the ground. A woman carries a young boy across a golf course, her feet sinking as though into quicksand. And then, finally, a huge blue planet smashes into Earth.
So, now that we know what is going to happen, we are left to explore how it happens.
The film is split into two acts concerning the two sisters at the heart of the film. In the first, 'Justine', a lavish wedding party takes place at a country estate.
Justine has married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a sweet but ineffectual man; after a hilarious stuff-up with their bridal limousine on a tortuous country road (which rather ironically, given this film's lofty intentions, brought to mind Austin Powers) they finally arrive at their reception, two hours late.
Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is furious, as is her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland); it's their estate and they've footed the bill. The women's mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) simpers through the evening, while their rather pathetic father Dexter (John Hurt) mostly drinks and tries to flirt with the women at his table.
Everyone is highly strung and keen to ensure that Justine is having a good time; that she is "happy". The reason for their misplaced zeal soon becomes apparent: Justine suffers from depression, a deep existential mud that she begins to sink back into throughout the evening.
Her state is not helped by the presence of her boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who harangues her to come up with the tagline for a new campaign they are working on. By the end of the night, Justine is completely adrift, and Antares - the bright star at the heart of Scorpio - has disappeared. As it turns out, something has moved in front of it.
In the second act, 'Claire', the world awaits its fate at the hands of an indifferent planet moving ever closer to our orbit. Melancholia, a blue super-earth, has been hiding behind the sun and now makes its way towards earth. John, an amateur astronomer, is giddy with excitement; Claire is "afraid of that stupid planet".
As for Justine, she has suffered a breakdown and can barely feed or bathe herself - and yet in the slowly approaching Melancholia she finds a strange sort of renewal, and her sorrow becomes almost energising.
This is a disturbing, upsetting film, make no mistake. It is also, at times, bracingly funny, in that strange way that depression often is when you manage to step outside it for a moment; what can you do but laugh? Additionally, as a critique of the ridiculousness of the wedding industry (with Udo Kier sending himself up to perfection as The Wedding Planner), it is searing.
Many have grumbled that little happens, that it's boring, that it unfolds ungracefully. Well, try suffering from an acute depression: that's all par for the course.
A common and misguided criticism of depression - and the depressed - is the phrase "self-indulgent", so von Trier's luxuriant, at times melodramatic treatment of this story works as a sort of thumbed-nose to that rather bourgeois fallacy.
(Those who employ that criticism usually do so with very little self-awareness: at my lowest ebb some years back, an ex-partner dismissed my being in psychoanalysis as "middle-class" - and then strolled off, to get a massage, wearing a straw boater.)
Depression, in cinematic terms, has typically been a man's disease. Even then, it's rare to see it - and all its ugly, seemingly selfish, irrational facets - presented as frankly as it is here. In one awful scene, Justine whips and then beats her horse when he refuses to cross a bridge. In another, she excoriates the desperate, increasingly terrified Claire for trying to make their impending doom at the hands of Melancholia "nice".
It would be unwise to dismiss Dunst's performance as one-note, as some have, for she masterfully navigates the myriad shades of grey that depression brings with it. Whether adrift in an emotional doldrums or suddenly snapping disdainfully at Claire, there's not a note that rings untrue.
On the flip side, Gainsbourg's desperate, naive treatment of her sister is spot on. As is the younger Skarsgård's; when he tells Justine that should she have "days when you feel a little sad" in future, she can sit under a tree in the plantation he has bought, he sums up both Michael's love for his new wife and his astounding lack of understanding of her.
Melancholia may be "a beautiful film about the end of the world", but in a way, for me, the end of the world was the secondary story at play here.
Von Trier has said that the inspiration for the film sprang from a therapist's telling him that people with depression react more calmly under extreme pressure than others, in effect because, well, how much worse can it get?
The answer to that question, in Melancholia at least, is gutting.
- five stars
Melancholia is in cinemas nationally from Thursday 15th December.
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