Title: Melancholia
Year: 2011
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Play time: 
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenwriters: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherlan

Lars Von Trier doesn’t care how you feel about his movies. You probably hate most of his characters, for example, but then again so does he. His work is one long conceptual experiment, a “fuck you” to everyone within earshot. His most practiced and prevalent register is contempt.

Or it has been until now. Melancholia is von Trier’s best work since at least Dancer in the Dark, a moving rumination on mental illness and maybe the first time since Breaking the Waves that the filmmaker has looked at one of his characters as an actual human being. Which is not to say that von Trier has gone soft, or that he lets anyone off easy; in its own way, Melancholia is as tough-minded and unforgiving as Dogville. The difference is that this time, he seems to understand that he is trafficking in real human emotion. Better yet: he seems to give a shit.

The film is structured as a prologue and two acts. The prologue I’ll return to a bit later. The main story concerns the relationship between two sisters: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a depressive with a history of breakdowns and various other big-ticket histrionics, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has an adorable son with her disgustingly rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and appears to have her life together. Justine at long last appears to have found an anchor in the tall, handsome and kind Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and as the film opens, they are driving their wedding reception, to take place at John and Claire’s country mansion. Their stretch limo has trouble with a tight turn on a gravel road, and the two of them alternate attempting to squeak through after the driver gives up. They’re hours late to their own party, but they arrive laughing.

As the evening drags on, Justine’s cheery facade begins to unravel. Perhaps because he has himself gone through the experience, von Trier is smart about the indulgent-but-exasperated way well-meaning people tend to treat their depressed friends and relatives: understanding the notion of mental illness on a certain level, but nonetheless hanging tight to the notion that the depressed person is just being willfully sad, and difficult, and if she would just stop being such a goddamn drama queen everything would be fine. The party soon turns into what seems like one long guilt trip. Claire sternly instructs Justine not to freak out — “we talked about this.” John reminds her that this reception is costing him a fortune, and says that he’s doing it as part of “a deal that you be happy.” Before long, Justine’s self-destructive instincts are back full-force. She falls asleep on her nephew’s bed. She fucks her boss’s new lackey (Brady Corbet) on a golf course. “This could have been a lot different,” her husband tells her at the end of the night. We don’t leave the party feeling great about their future together.

The impression, with Claire as with most seriously depressed people, is that she is not equipped to productively exist in the world. But in act two, von Trier turns the tables by throwing the characters a curveball — namely, armageddon. I don’t want to give away too much, except to say that von Trier takes his apocalypse surprisingly seriously, even supplying an ingenious plot device with which the characters can measure its proximity. The mechanics are compelling, but not that important. What’s fascinating is that Justine finds herself perfectly at home at the end of the world. Instead of burying herself under the covers, she takes to moonbathing in the nude, calming her increasingly distressed nephew, and leveling cold, appraising looks at Claire — who, by contrast, falls apart completely.

The last hour of Melancholia is genius. It plays like a thriller; there are several actual, no-shit plot twists, which I never expected to see from von Trier. Justine’s transformation, moreover, is heartbreaking and perfectly plausible. She is the same deeply unhappy person, except the figurative abyss of the rest of her life has been ripped away and replaced with a literal, physical one. That, she can deal with. The film suggests that our view of psychological health is necessarily contingent on the world we live in, and there are some things for which “depressives” are simply built better.

The film ends with an astounding final shot that has been burned into my retinas since I saw it. And it opens with a similarly unforgettable 10-minute montage that — like Justine in the film’s second half — finds aching beauty in impending doom. That willingness to look for beauty amidst ugliness is what sets Melancholia apart from the rest of von Trier’s ouvre. The dude, it appears, has a heart.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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