Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia opens in magnificent, operatic fashion. Birds fall from the sky, strands of light stream forth from the finger tips of Kirsten Dunst, the ground sinks beneath Charlotte Gainsbourg’s feet and then a bigger planet obliterates our planet. This is all beautifully shot, set to classical music from a booming orchestra, and played in slow motion. It’s a prelude to the film’s big ideas, terrific performances, and thoughtful examination of what it means to be happy and if happiness is even worth pursing. But for all of its grandiosity and introspection, Melancholia never manages to strike an emotional connection.
Justine (Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are late to their own wedding but the two appear to be happy. They show up to some annoyed guests, particularly her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). But as the night wears on, we can see that Justine’s happiness is fleeting. At every turn, her guests and her husband keep forcing the notion that she should be overjoyed. She’s the bride, it’s her wedding day, and custom dictates that this is the happiest day of her life. But in the course of the single night, Justine’s crippling depression destroys everything that should make her feel fulfilled.
Her unhappiness isn’t caused by any external factor. It’s who she is in her soul. So the fact that a new planet, “Melancholia”, has come out from behind the sun and is coming dangerously close to Earth doesn’t trouble her as it does Claire. Claire is grounded, she has John and their son Leo, and she believes she has plenty to live for. She’s terrified that all of that could be taken away by a literally Earth-shattering event. Justine’s story is part one of the film, Claire’s is part two, and hanging over it all is a gigantic symbol.
Von Trier goes big, and some would argue overboard with his visuals, score, and performances, but he’s got some massive ideas to express. Furthermore, he provides his ideas in an intelligent manner rather than use his characters as mouthpieces. The wedding of the first half cleverly breaks down and incisively criticizes how we manufacture our own happiness (it’s no mistake that Justine works in advertising). For Justine, happiness can’t happen. She’s not opposed to it and she’s not a cynic. She simply can’t accept it. Her depression is as inescapable and destructive as the looming planet. It’s an honest presentation of how depression works—everything that should make you happy is worthless and you can only take comfort in sadness. Furthermore, Von Trier forces us to confront our own idea of what makes us happy. Is there anything inherently cheerful about cutting the wedding cake with your spouse or is it simply a meaningless custom? And if we keep reducing these traditions and social constructs, is it even possible to find happiness?
The Claire half of the story presents the other side of the emotional spectrum by showing anxiety, rationality, family, love, and how it could be equally meaningless in the face of Armageddon. Again, Von Trier not only asks us where our happiness comes from, but its true worth. Melancholia is a rich experience when it’s asking questions and forcing us to reexamine our values. However, its carefully constructed subtext cracks when characters offer blanket statements, like when Justine tells Claire, “The Earth is evil. No one will grieve for it.”
The Justine who makes this statement in the second half is drained, dead inside, and not only seems resigned to the Earth’s end, but calmly welcoming it. Claire’s half of the film is solid and Gainsbourg gives a strong performance, but Melancholia grabs your attention in Part One and that’s due in large part to Dunst. This is the best performance of her career and one of the best performances of the year. She’s tasked with playing an array of complex and conflicting emotions, go to some dark places, and she does it all beautifully. Coupled with Manuel Alberto Claro’s breathtaking cinematography, it’s not difficult to see why Melancholia will get inside your head.
But it never gets in your heart, which is highly ironic considering the film’s major themes revolve around major emotions like happiness, depression, and anxiety. Von Trier has so carefully crafted his picture that it never manages to breathe or create a spark of life. The visuals are wondrous and the concepts explored are grand, but everything feels as cold as a carefully worded academic thesis. Even Dunst’s amazing performance can’t connect to the audience, not because of her, but because it’s confined to playing precisely to Von Trier rigid design. Von Trier allows us to feel sympathy for Justine, but never compassion. He can make us think about intense emotions, but he can never make us feel them. As Melancholia comes closer, Melancholia stays distant.
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