It is the movie Lars Von Trier was presenting at Cannes when he accidentally got banned for a not-so-subtle remark about Nazism; it is also the film that, in the same occasion, won Kirsten Dunst the coveted award for Best Actress.
Melancholia was definitely talked about even prior to its release; and while Von Trier’s ill-fated declaration might have just have been a publicity stunt, however ruthless, both events must have pleased the distributors with the buzz they created around the movie. Yet, they needn’t have worried, because this is also one of those films that possess enough originality and quirk to potentially create their own media hype.
Opening with the powerful and emotionally charged notes of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde backing enigmatic and picturesque slow-motion scenes of apocalyptic nature, Melancholia tells the story of depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who, along with her family, finds herself having to face the end of the world – which is coming in the shape of a giant blue planet in collision with the Earth.
While Justine exhibits a matter-of-factly acceptance towards the event, her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsburg) is extremely worried despite reassurances from her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) that the planet, called Melancholia, will only pass by the Earth without colliding with it. While trying to understand and come to terms with such an extraordinary event, the family also has to deal with the more mundane happenings of Justine’s severe depression, which causes her to become unable to live her life independently, their parents’ broken relationship, and the sisters’ own complicated one.
The story – told through anxious handheld camera work and contrasting fixed, oddly serene shots – aims to portray the diversity of emotions displayed by human beings in the face of the most annihilating, most feared events of all – the end of the world – but it’s also enigmatic and open for interpretation. Von Trier’s direction leaves the audience constantly wondering and perched on the brink between belief and doubt, and between reality and metaphor; with well timed humorous moments and theatrical, almost improvised performances by the actors, he builds interest and, simultaneously, uncertainty and apprehension, making it clear that what is shown could, or could not, be happening.
Kirsten Dunst shows confidence and complete abandon in playing Justine, who, fragile and torn, is at the centre of the first half of the movie. While still performing excellently, Dunst is somehow set aside in the second half to make way for the development of the character of Claire – and it’s then that Charlotte Gainsburg shines for her ability to portray pain, relief, desperation, fragility and courage. Excellent support is also provided by the heartfelt performances of Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling.
With Melancholia, Lars Von Trier refuses to provide answers, and at times his desire to confuse is deliberate - which can prove frustrating for some. Yet, it’s a poetic, passionate film which, just as it allows for different interpretations if seen with an open mind, it is also likely to elicit contrasting reactions – perhaps just what Von Trier aimed to do.