Melancholia is a difficult film to discuss without taking a look at two other recent films as well, firstly Trier’s own “Antichrist” and Malick’s “Tree of Life”. With regards the former it continues the directors trend into telling stories about depressed women coming to terms with their lives and impending disaster, whilst offering the latter’s grand visions on a cosmic scale as a means of exploring the human condition. Like both, it offers a viewing experience about as far from conventional modern film narrative as possible and a glimpse of the possibility of what film can achieve, although unlike the former it is far less a gruelling experience this time and a far easier proposition to watch.
Opening with a series of dreamlike images (scored by Wagner’s Overture to Tristan & Isolde) relating to the impending end of the world and primarily its effect on two sisters, the ten minute sequence is as bold as Malick’s birth sequence was, offering the same flawless, slow effects sequence to envision the destruction of the Earth as the result of a planetary collision rather than the birth of the universe. Birds fall from the sky, static electricity slowly arcs between the protagonists fingers before the (inevitable) collision and animals lay down to die, all shot in the same hyper real / artificial perfection that characterised the look of Antichrist. Trier has commented that he sees this as acting like the overture of the film, telling us what is going to happen, certainly it removes the question of whether the Earth will avoid its fate from the film completely, allowing us to focus instead on the relationship between the two protagonists at the centre. Crucially, answering what would be the fundamental question for any other film (will Melancholia hit the Earth) does not diminish the tension, instead focussing it on this portrait of disintegrating women.
This isn’t a film about finding a way to survive the forthcoming apocalypse, instead it’s about how different people react to the fact that they are going to die (the whole thing could be a metaphor for the main character’s depression). The two acts, entitled Justine & Claire after the two sisters, present a role reversal for each character as they progress. The younger, Justine is suffering from depression and seeks to destroy everything of meaning in her world (and in doing so takes part in what can only be described as the most excruciatingly awkward wedding ever), whilst Claire is more stable, happy with her role in life. Justine’s reaction to stability in her life is to lash out, ending her wedding having ostracised her mother and husband, with only her sister left to defend her. The coming of Melancholia brings stability to her life – finally she knows what is going to happen. Claire on the other hand has more to lose, when it appears that Melancholia isn’t just going to perform a fly-by she retreats into depression, no longer able to simply organise her way out of a problem. Even if the title wasn’t a big hint, Melancholia is depressing stuff.
So why do I love it as a film so much? Well for one, the first half is actually blisteringly funny (in a “turn away from the screen and wince” fashion), beautifully paced and full of drama – even without the impending planetfall (the characters don’t know about it at this point). The large cast of the first half (we are reduced to four players for the second half) all play their roles wonderfully. John Hurt shows a lightness of touch at comedy that makes you wonder where is career could have gone, whilst Charlotte Rampling is terrifying as the Mother from hell. However the film belongs to both Kirsten Dunst (never better) and Charlotte Gainsborough (as good as Antichrist), the former in the sort of role that may make other directors re-assess her abilities, the latter possibly coming close to giving two performances so different a character is presented at the end of the film. Both deserve to have praised heaped upon them and hopefully Dunst will use this as a springboard to more interesting films in the future.
I’m fast coming to the conclusion that for all of his (many) faults, Trier may be the best director of women currently working. Whilst his films often pour torment upon torment on his actresses, the results are never less than astounding, and Dunst joins the list of Bjork, Emily Watson, Kidman & Gainsborough who’ve never really been better than when appearing in his work. Since his abandonment of Dogme 95 his work has become increasingly fantastical, whilst the performances have become more and more human. From a technical standpoint the film is astonishing, one overhead tracking shot of the sisters on an early morning horse ride through the fog being one of the most beautiful shots of the year. His choice of subject matter means that he’s unlikely ever to receive more mainstream acceptance, but this is likely to be of little consequence to him. Melancholia is a fine film, and the opening ten minutes make it worth seeking out at the cinema for the same reasons as “Tree of Life”, but as ever with Trier you really need ot make up your own mind as to whether you need to see it.