Lars von Trier’s most accomplished movie since 2003’s Dogville was sadly overshadowed by the controversy this constantly provocative director evoked at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, with the praise it deserved sadly diluted by his remarkably thoughtless remarks. This is a huge shame, as not only does Melancholia (2011) boast an award-winning star turn by Kirsten Dunst (in a career best performance), but was also one of last year’s most aesthetically pleasing films.
When an ominous planet appears in the night sky, threatening to collide into the earth and crudely erase all evidence of existence, two sisters find their already dysfunctional relationship faced with even greater problems. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) attempts to resist the inevitable by celebrating life and love – putting all her energy into organising a gloriously frivolous wedding for her sister Justine (Dunst). However, Justine has resigned herself to their fate, and what at first seems like the symptoms of an advanced decline into dementia, soon reveals itself as a heightened understanding of the apocalyptic future which faces them.
This beautifully crafted allegory for depression (using m mysterious spectral body as a looming representation of the effects of a crippling ailment) successfully combines the thoroughly sumptuous camera work apparent in Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) with the Danish director’s uncanny knack of capturing the internal anguish which consumes his deeply troubled characters. Indeed, Melancholia’s strikingly bleak tale is utterly mesmerising, painterly presented through a spectrum of sharp, yet washed-out shades which perfectly represents its characters’ collective alarm and despair.
Melancholia’s only problem is just how striking the divide between its two halves appears. The film’s opening section – focusing on Justine’s lavish, yet peculiar wedding – is a wonderful character piece (recalling Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film Festen). However, what proceeds feels like a separate movie, containing a small selection of the cast whose lives we were previously privy to. This second half, in which the planet Melancholia presents itself more noticeably in the night sky, feels more like a archetypal disaster movie, switching the dramatic focus to the film’s foreboding conclusion. Despite some impressive performance by the film’s central trio of Dunst, Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland, Melancholia sadly fails to advance the thoroughly interesting relationships it originally promises to expand upon.
Melancholia may be two pitch perfect films carelessly conjoined, yet it remains – thanks to its compelling performances and breathtaking visuals – a wonderful example of experimental arthouse cinema at its best.