MELANCHOLIA – Fantastic Fest Review
Writer and director Lars von Trier has shared his own personal experience with depression with the public, so its not surprising that his newest film, MELANCHOLIA, is such a strong representation of what that experience could be like. The auteur filmmaker revealed in an interview accompanying the screening of the film that MELANCHOLIA is not a story of his own account with the condition, but rather that his experience clearly helped him in telling an honest, accurate story two sisters, dealing with two distinctly different types of depression.
One thing MELANCHOLIA certainly succeeds at is dividing its audience, but Lars von Trier has a history of making films that do just this. Generally speaking, his films are either hailed as visionary masterpieces or criticized as pretentious, boring and self-indulgent. My experience lies very much in the center for virtually each of his films, and this one is no exception. I found myself compelled by the intensely accurate portrayal of a character living with depression, and the extraordinary cast as a whole, but also felt the film runs a bit long, which will lessen the impact the film can have on many viewers. Structurally, MELANCHOLIA is split into two parts, each chapter titled with character’s name whose point-of-view drives that chapter.
Part One – Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an attractive, successful advertising copywriter who is about to get married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), the man of most womens’ dreams, but despite her best efforts, her crippling fight with depression overwhelms her. Partially triggered by he mean-spirited mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), her emotionally unavailable and playfully immature father Dexter (John Hurt) and her asshole boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), Justine has a sever breakdown that leads to a soul-shattering lever of personal disaster that would send anyone into a deep abyss of self-loathing. The difference, however, is that Justine’s depression is clinical and beyond her control, an experience so many people suffer daily. Much like those in real life, Justine’s family is less that supportive, even down right dismissive, except for her sister Claire.
Kirsten Dunst has rarely impressed me as an actress, but she shocks the hell out of me with her stellar portrayal in MELANCHOLIA. I am saying it now, with no regrets, that Dunst deserves an Oscar nomination — at least — for this role. Her ability to capture the range of emotions, the unpredictable change in moods and the paralytic effects of depression on both the mind and body are astounding. Without going into detail, I am speaking from a point of personal experience, from which I draw a great amount of my comparison. This is why, ideally, this film needs to be seen by everyone, but I am fully aware this will not happen. This is unfortunate.
Part Two – Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is Justine’s sister, her best friend and at times her worst enemy. Claire is as supportive as she can be, at times emotionally and physically drained by the amount of energy she must commit to helping her sister, which is intensified by also having a child, Leo, and a wealthy but selfish husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) who is the richest, whiniest money-pincher I’ve seen on film in years, but Sutherland does a great job in one of the first widely seen roles since his time on the TV series 24.
Claire is a women who deals with a much more manageable, yet unbearably brutal form of situational depression. Her primary catalyst for her breakdown is the result of MELANCHOLIA’s sub-plot that spells the end to everything, period. Charlotte Gainsbourg is every bit of fascinating on screen as her counterpart Dunst, which is what makes focusing on Dunst so difficult. Her performance, as is her character, is drastically different from Dunst’s and for good reason. It’s a reactionary role, whereas Dunst’s character is simply being, in the moment, for better or for worse.
Regarding that “sub-plot” I mentioned… MELANCHOLIA is on a very minimal level a science-fiction film, but don’t allow this to sway your preliminary outlook on the film, which begins with a tremendously uncharacteristic use of CGI from Lars von Trier. MELANCHOLIA opens with a superbly rendered depiction of a cosmic disaster, involving the planet Earth and a previously unknown planet that has been hiding behind the sun. Set to a beautiful, orchestral score, the scene sets the mood for the remainder of the film, and is the only bit of CGI in the film until the very last scene. MELANCHOLIA uses this setup as an experiment for how we may react to the knowledge that everything we know and are will inevitably end while we, as a species, are collectively conscious of that end as it occurs. On this level alone, I love what Lars von Trier is doing.
MELANCHOLIA is an astounding work of cinema, even with its flaws which include the need for a more streamlined storytelling structure, a slightly shortened running time and a final CGI ending that would have played better with a simple dissolve to white. Aside from Dunst’s and Gainsbourg’s performances, the star of the film is the cinematography from Manuel Alberto Claro, combining gloriously picturesque landscape composition with intimately personal shots capturing mood and moments of heaviness, but also showcasing some truly phenomenal slow-motion cinematography that makes Zack Snyder’s slo-mo style look like it’s in a hurry. I could watch MELANCHOLIA repeatedly, just for the visual masterpiece it is, especially when combined with the fittingly moody classical score that accompanies this cinematic interpretation of depression unlike any other.