a review by Nalini Haynes
Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are two sisters who are living under the threat of an asteroid called Melancholia crashing into the Earth and destroying the planet. Melancholia opens with artistic cinematic sequences establishing a mood of depression, a struggle for emotional survival. These sequences refer to iconic artworks later self-referenced within the movie when Justine rearranges a display of art books with illustrations.
Part one focuses on Justine’s wedding reception and her struggle to appear happy while she’s depressed. Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) paid for the wedding; it’s established fairly early on that this wedding is their wedding rather than Justine’s, and Justine is expected to fulfil their expectations. Claire and John attempt, with varying degrees of obnoxiousness and failure, to maintain appearances by keeping truculent relatives in line. Cameo appearances from notable actors grounded this portion of Melancholia in reality, although I would have enjoyed these more if they’d been played for humour to leaven the overall melancholic mood.
Part two sees Justine return to Claire’s mansion in a taxi desperate, nearly incapacitated with depression. Claire’s growing anxiety about the asteroid that is supposed to encircle the Earth then depart affects her deeply; John seeks to comfort her while secretly taking precautions. This is a story of people facing possible impending death and how their disparate characters lead them to respond differently.
This is a purely character-driven story, appealing more to an art-house audience than those who enjoy ‘normal’ science fiction. While some of the imagery is beautiful and some scientific ideas are portrayed in Melancholia, I was really surprised to see a lack of gale-force winds, earthquakes and tidal waves while Melancholia circled the Earth, ripping away some of the oxygen. Likewise, there was a grumbling sound in the background, which I think was intended to be the sound of the asteroid moving through Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, but there wasn’t any evidence of earthquakes or tidal waves due to the intense gravitational pull of this enormous astronomical body in close proximity to Earth.
None of the characters were likeable. Initially I found I could enjoy disliking John but then his behaviour was not entirely thoughtless and uncaring, robbing me of even that level of emotional involvement. I found I couldn’t identify with or engage with any of the characters; watching Melancholia was like standing inside, looking through a window watching strangers walk down the street however Kirsten Dunst surprised me. Up until Melancholia Dunst has always irritated me, appearing to play the princess even, and especially, in Spiderman. In Melancholia, Dunst shows a maturity and capacity for acting like never before. I look forward to seeing her in future roles.
Almost entirely set in Claire’s house and grounds, the few times Justine and Claire tried to leave in part two, they were unable to, either because horses shied or because the cars, then a golf-buggy, died at a particular bridge leading off the property. I wondered if this was meant to symbolically portray the isolation and destruction depression causes. If so, then the climactic outcome has particular significance, conveying von Triers’ view of the world. Even if Melancholia is taken literally, especially if one focuses on Dunst’s lines, von Triers’ worldview is exposed.
If there is such a thing as literary science fiction arthouse movies, then Melancholia fits that category. Von Triers’ fans will adore this movie as will fans of arthouse-type movies and movies that are explorations of the human character and existentialism. Not my cup of tea personally but others, like Margaret Pomeranz, have already declared this movie to be a masterpiece.