After the crucible of Antichrist, Melancholia is the closest thing to a palette cleanser that Lars von Trier is capable of producing. The problem is that a palette cleanser is not what anyone should want from the director who normally pushes the envelope to the point where it can’t even be called an envelope anymore. This is von Trier at his least challenging.
The film consists of two halves that almost make a whole. They both focus on a pair of sisters — the first giving more attention to depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding night, the second to the troubled mother and wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the eve of the earth coming into contact with another planet. However, more than just characters, the pair act more as a platform for delivering archetypes, ideas and more than a bit of visual poetics.
Even at his breeziest, von Trier has crafted something more meaningful than most. There’s no doubt that it’s a gorgeous film, shot with purpose and care, that touches on difficult emotional spaces. There’s a dark hopefulness that pervades the piece, and von Trier finds humor (especially through Udo Kier playing a frustrated wedding planner) even in the midst of Justine’s erratic actions. She is a one-woman army against her own happiest day of her life who plays out a bit like The Joker without stories about her scars or the energy to burn a house down.
In fact, Dunst is often sleepy in the performance. There’s nothing in the first segment that really labels her as depressed more than it labels her as a difficult rich girl who doesn’t really love her newly minted husband or anyone else. It isn’t until the second act that we see the depth of her mental illness. It comes in a beautiful, fist-clenching scene where Justine can’t even lift her leg to get into a bath with the help of her sister. It’s as direct an illustration of depression as was ever put on screen, but most of Dunst’s work seems flat and uninteresting. The writing doesn’t challenge, and she doesn’t seem up to the task in the first place. With as rich a tapestry as clinical depression offers, Dunst seems only to oscillate between two settings: faked joy and tepid ennui.
Of course, the root cause of her problem is that she spends so much time against Gainsbourg who is far more talented. Watching the two work off each other, you start to wish that Gainsbourg had been in the main role and that another actress had been hired to play Claire. It’s the night and day difference between the woman who von Trier forced to strip naked and furiously masturbate in a dirt clod to show her complete despair and the girl who was in Bring It On.
The other big winner here is Keifer Sutherland, who delivers a sympathetic, slightly sweet performance that makes it seem like he was never the gun-shoving Jack Bauer. He’s one of the only rounded characters, offering subtlety and substance in a part that could have been all bluster.
Melancholia‘s subtext is certainly rich, directly displaying the depth of sadness as the world coming to an end. It’s a blend of massive obviousness (like naming the planet about to slam into Earth after a word for moroseness that also coincides with the ancient description for bi-polar disorder) and small wisps of symbolism that pervade a beautifully shot film. The last segment is astonishing in its severity, but it’s also somehow incredibly joyous. There’s a calm that von Trier has created with finality.
It’s too bad that the human elements don’t add up to much. There are no consequences for Justine and very few for Claire. That makes for a stirring message about the mutability of life and the inevitability of destruction, but it doesn’t make for a story seeking to go beyond the veil. It’s lightweight, surprisingly easy to watch, and (perhaps the most damning of all comments for a von Trier film) it’s digestible.
Unfortunately, the film is a handful of brilliance in a sea of average. It’s a difficult subject, a complex human problem that von Trier seeks to place simultaneously on a pedestal and under a microscope, but too much of it feels like filler. For as bombastic as the finale proves to be, the rest of the film is completely wanting.
The Upside: Beautiful imagery, strong performances from Sutherland and Gainsbourg, and some outstanding sections.
The Downside: A lead actress not fit for the material, a lack of challenging insight and an overall tameness.
On the Side: Melancholia was thought in Ancient Greece to be caused by an imbalance in the four bodily liquids – specifically too much black bile.