I’m going to jump in feet first by saying that Melancholia is my film of the year so far. It is as profound an artistic rendering of depression as I’ve come across since William Styron’s Darkness Visible or even The Bell Jar. Certainly I’ve never experienced its equal in film; many movies have depicted depression, but few have ever expressed the experience of depression so truthfully and eloquently.
The story, as far as it matters, concerns two events. First: a wedding between depressive advertising executive Justine (Kirsten Dunst, never better) and cheery naïf Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), hosted by the bride’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her super-rich husband (a saturnine Keifer Sutherland) in their immense country home; an ostensibly cheerful event riven with sub-surface tensions. The second event is the appearance of a rogue, extra-solar planet – called Melancholia, metaphor fans – which, it is feared, will career headlong into Earth, destroying it utterly (a sequence played out at the start of the film, alongside dreamlike still/slo-mo images and romantic score – Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde – reflecting a similar opening to Von Trier’s previous film, Antichrist, to which Melancholia is a companion-piece).
At this point I should animadvert that I’m no great fan of Von Trier’s work as a whole. Nor am I the biggest fan of Antichrist; it’s visually stunning but a bit sledgehammer-heavy in its symbolism – and devoid of humanity. I tend to agree with David Thomson’s view that “[he] is brilliant in a way that gives that term a bad name. He knows no reality – only film”. Of course the man himself does his best to make himself as unlikable as possible, and his films tend to be correspondingly hard-going, controversial and hypocritical.
Controversy is kept to minimum here, though. There are some stock Von Trier-isms, most notably the manipulation of a vulnerable woman by a fatuous and/or pompous man, physically demanding performances, a disdain for exposition and a hermetically-sealed world (like the Hotel California the key players can never leave the mansion or it’s grounds, nor do the audience). What we don’t get are the same measures of gratuitous brutality, exploitation or misery visited on the main characters (excepting the imminent apocalypse, of course).
Perhaps because of this relative leniency the director himself has expressed dissatisfaction with the film, comparing it to ‘double cream’. Maybe it’s not his cup of tea, but as a lover of things ornamental and lush (my favourite movies are Amadeus and Mulholland Drive, for heaven’s sake) it’s very much mine. One scene, in which Justine tears down the pretentiously-displayed tomes of abstract expressionism in the house library, replacing them with volumes of Bosch, Klimt and other lively figurative monographs is a kind of shorthand for Von Trier’s progression from his wilfully obtuse Dogme years through the spare sound-stage of Dogville to this Antichrist/Melancholia diptych.
However, aside from all the northern European romanticism and booming Wagner, it’s as an expression of depression that the film really succeeds. It may seem obvious – gauche, even – to rely on the planetary metaphor, but the beauty is in the execution. Von Trier expertly mines the tension from his actors during the wedding sequence (having actors of the calibre of Hurt, Rampling, Kier and Skarsgard Sr. in supporting roles doesn’t hurt, of course), perfectly expressing the emotional fraudulence that often sits beneath such occasions. And Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Justine (the name itself an echo of de Sade: liberation through submission) is just magnificent –her presentation of the manic wilfulness, the physical helplessness and perverse moments of strength associated with depression all ring true (and are well written too, suggesting that Von Trier is indeed One Who Knows).
As I’ve suggested above, aesthetically the film belongs to that romantic, ornate and exhilaratingly doom-ridden northern European tradition: think Caspar David Friedrich meets the elder Breughel, with topiary. The country mansion location – strongly recalling Last Year at Marienbad – is extraordinary and perfect; in the film it is neither named nor located. Nor does this matter – it is part of an ur-Baltic lowland of the mind, all dampness and twilight, the perfect breeding ground for melancholy.
So, given my own experience of the film (I’ve seen it twice now) I find it odd that it’s received little genuine critical praise, and a fair amount of actually quite-bad reviews. Perhaps I’m naive and easily impressed – or maybe I’m just late to the whole ‘let’s bash Von Trier’ party. I feel that time will be kind to Melancholia; as an actors’ piece (and it really is almost a stage play, albeit with galactic special effects – as Mark Kermode said brilliantly: “it’s Festen meets Armageddon”) it is superbly played by all participants. The visual effects themselves are quite spectacular given the sub-$10m budget, and a million miles from the always-suspect Dogme 95 manifesto. And while I remain an advocate of celluloid over pixels, I can’t recall a more beautifully shot digital film. Some of the sequences are quite breathtaking, not least the final scene before the credits roll.
To my mind this is Von Trier’s best film, and it sits apart from any other picture I’ve seen this year – it is visually, sonically and conceptually in a field of its own. Clearly it’s not for mass-consumption: it’s a long film, unconventionally structured; it deals with weighty matters of the soul (with some moments of levity) and doesn’t really have a plot in the traditional sense. Nonetheless, if you profess to love film, go and see it now, if you can.