Female dejection and apocalyptic exquisiteness haunt the controversial Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. A sensual and afflicted film, Melancholia tells the story of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a reluctant bride gritting her teeth and bearing it through her extravagant wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), her ever-faithful and often neglected husband. Justine’s wedding is planned by her painfully dutiful sister Claire (von Trier darling, Charlotte Gainsbourg), and funded by Claire’s deep-pocketed husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The affair is housed at John and Claire’s palatial country mansion that sits next to an 18 hole golf course and an eerily manicured garden, one that rivals the hedge maze from The Shining. The over the top nuptials cause the prone to depression Justine to abandon all care for her newly minted husband, work, or sanity.
But this is just one side of the doleful coin that is von Trier’s world of symphonic destruction. During Justine’s wedding, a planet known simply as Melancholia begins to appear in the sky, after hiding behind the sun for light years. Scientists and the ever tsssk-ing John explain that the Earth and Melancholia’s paths will never collide in a cosmic big bang of apocalypse. Justine, whose mental state appears to be cosmically linked to the celestial planet and its cruel, destructive, unfeeling path, knows otherwise.
What von Trier accomplishes with Melancholia is a highly original and woefully baffling piece of cinematic symphony. The sheer agony and ecstacy of Justine’s own depression, paired with the effortlessly lux world of the mansion, make for a confusingly sad, stifled tone. One is never quite sure what could be wrong with Justine, a beautiful and charming creature with a seemingly fulfilling career and a caring husband, nor do we understand how there can be such unrest for Charlotte and John, a couple whose tremendous financial fortunes are anemic of any self-consciousness. Yet the blue, serene, and sorrowful presence of Melancholia literally and figuratively looms over the characters, arming Claire with well-maintained and composed terror, John with a false sense of smugness over Earth’s dominance, and Justine with an astutely sad and grounded understanding of the earth’s and her own cruelty. Through von Trier’s filmic existential concerto of crash, bang, boom, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of destruction, we may take pain in the woefully cruel nature of the human spirit, and of the melodic beauty in its destruction.
Much of the sorrowful and hollow work that is accomplished in this film can be accredited to Ms. Dunst. Her performance, so cruel, sunken, and numb utters with such random ease and dejection, the meaninglessness of depression. Dunst has grown into a grounded, aware actor, capable of emotional extremities that span a myriad of forms and depths. Contrarily, Gainsbourg’s Claire feels ungrounded and unrealistic in her portrayal of a mother, fighting for the survival of the Earth and above all else, her son. Gainsbourg accomplishes much hand-wringing but little humanization in her character.
Melancholia was met with both praise and controversy at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film’s ultimate success was awkwardly overshadowed by von Trier’s misguided, antisemitic rant at a press conference for the film. Much of the remainder of the festival was spent with attention not to the interesting work accomplished in Melancholia, but in the media fire-storm that met von Trier’s racist rant and eventual apology. Yeah, it all got pretty awkward, to say the least. However, Kirsten Dunst maintained her poise through the Mel Gibson caliber shit storm and scooped up the Best Actress Award at the Cannes closing ceremonies. Kudos, Torrance Shipman. You’ve come far.
As far as its Oscar future goes, I don’t see it holding down any nominations. The quirkiness of von Trier has the potential to evade most Academy voters, and much of their brain power for celestial explosions and confusion might already be reserved to float a nomination in The Tree of Life’s direction. Plus there are dinosaurs in that one; so, no contest. Kirsten Dunst is fully capable of a nomination for Best Actress, while the Wagner infused apocalypse makes Kristian Eidnes Andersen heavily deserving of a Best Sound Mixing nod. As far as Best Picture goes, I am always in favour of rewarding original, challenging, and un-formulaic films, such as this, with a nomination. Whether that will actually happen is highly unlikely.
Did you see “Melancholia”? Were you also disappointed at the lack of dinosaurs and “Bring It On” references? Comment, s’il vous plait mes mo’ fos.