Melancholia is a film that is metaphorically transparent. Everything that we need to know about it is fully emblazoned in the title. The blue planet that finds itself on a collision course with Earth (guess the name of the planet!), more or less represents that unsuspecting power of depression. It comes out of nowhere and there is nothing we can do about it. Despite the film’s sci-fi premise and lack of interest in understanding how a planet can hide behind the sun, it’s undoubtedly about the strength and isolation that comes with depression. Considering how graphic and unscrupulous his last film was (the over the top Anti-Christ), Lars von Trier has constructed a film that feels more along the lines of a traditional film. Oddly enough, it’s a more intimate venture for him as well.
Boasting alluring images and a gothic color palette, Melancholia makes it a priority to place us in a perpetual state of mental isolation. This is clear once the film opens up on a section titled “Justine”, where a level of listlessness is found. We are introduced to Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a blushing bride making her way to her wedding reception. Happiness is clearly pressed against her face. She has a dashing husband; profitable job and a wedding reception that would make the royal family feel meek in comparison. It’s a dream life that would surely usher in waves of happiness and glory. But throughout this joyous event, one that has been delicately crafted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine is removed from the event altogether. Often disappearing at the wrong time and delaying the reception, Justine’s fleeting behaviors are seen as the acts of a petulant child. A woman who is already an island now finds herself floating adrift, even further away from civilization. In a matter of a few hours, Justine’s newly christened marriage dissolves and all of her relationships with her family members are taken off life support. The troll known as depression has been sufficiently fed.
From there we go to a segment titled “Claire” which follows the distraught mindset of Justine’s sister of the same name. Claire is a bit frazzled to say the least. With the planet Melancholia making its way towards Earth, Claire fears the worst: death is imminent. Making Claire’s fear compound, despite her astronomy enthusiast husband’s evidence, is the arrival of a now catatonic Justine. Claire’s attempts to reinvigorate Justine with home cooking and other condescending tools send Justine further into mental despair. The funny thing is that as time passes and the planet of Melancholia looms closer, Claire begins to lose her wits while Justine actually begins to slip out of her depression. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the planet ends up crashing into Earth. As a matter of fact, we know the planet crashes into Earth within the first few minutes of the film. What matters is the dissolution of Claire’s mental stability and the growing assurance of Justine’s. Lars von Trier does a terrific job of heightening the differential paranoia in the leads and the growing insecurity in the audience by crafting moments of quiet terror. From horses moving restlessly about to a nude Justine bathing in the light emanating from Melancholia, von Trier continuously perpetuates the anxiety and askew nature that resides in everyone’s mind. Even more impressive is that von Trier does this all with small bits of rage, which is a difference from Anti-Christ, a film that started out on a quiet note, but reached a ridiculous level of silliness through over the top gore.
The paranoia is exemplified by the performance of Kirsten Dunst, who undoubtedly gives the performance of her career. Vulnerable, bitter, and engaging, she’s yet another actress that von Trier has molded into an impressive specimen. Dunst’s ability to dive into the ever-growing sadness of her character sends a wave of depression through the viewer. It doesn’t make for a comfortable viewing, but it’s a sure sign of an actress who is fully dedicated to the material. Outside of Dunst’s acting, as well as the fine performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg, the most gratifying aspect of Melancholia is its deft understanding of depression. More specifically, it’s the sudden and undeterminable appearance of the crippling mental illness. After having battled depression over the last few years, it’s clear that von Trier has exploited his sickness with fervor and intelligence. Leaving no stone unturned, von Trier beautifully displays both the intrinsic and extrinsic downfalls of such an affliction. The extrinsic idea is the most damning as the characters around Justine lack the understanding to help her through the trenches, a notion that finds its way into our reality. Oddly enough, and contrary to the dark and controversial words the slip off his devilish tongue, von Trier has made a film that is weirdly like a public service announcement that offers those who suffer from depression a comforting hand. One wouldn’t expect von Trier to be a beacon of light, but he gives us an opportunity to walk through the maze known as depression and in that, we get a bit closer to those who have no choice but to feel distant.