Melancholia documents the days before our Earth collides with a planet of the same name. Its first ten minutes are a dreamscape, slow motion images of space, our protagonists, and the Earth’s destruction. These are ten minutes of cinematic eye porn, beautifully shot and rendered. They are also ten dreadfully sluggish minutes, and even when the slow-motion is turned off and the film’s narrative begins, Melancholia never shakes this very measured and leisure pace. It, of course, isn’t meant to be a romp.
Even with its fantastical elements, Melancholia is ultimately a film about just that: melancholy. We see the lives and complicated relationships of sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Beginning on the day of the formers wedding, Justine is a bride willing, but unable to shake the sadness. And so she departs on a destructive and caustic path to ruin the day. It isn’t just sadness, however. Dunst’s performance is so powerful here, her portrayal of a woman plagued by depression so real, it borders on uncomfortable. Sometimes you feel sorry for her, but often you hate her because she is so self destructive and mad.
Gainsbourg does just as well portraying the other side of the coin. While she never expresses it outright, there is a level of exhaustion to everything Claire does for Justine. You get the sense that she has had to be the strong one for so long, and that it’s catching up with her, wearing her thin. Von Trier then takes the film to a different place. Inspired by the idea that depressed persons are often calmer than others in moments of stress because they already expect the worse, roles are reversed as the film nears its end. This sense of doom that has weakened Justine for so long gives her the ability to cope. It’s Dunst’s Justine and Gainsbourg’s Claire that really make the film, pulling you through its most aggravating and dawdling moments.
Admittedly, Melancholia is full of a plethora of great performances. Kiefer Sutherland is great as Claire’s jerk of a husband, and Alexander Skarsgard takes a huge departure from the norm as Justine’s groom, portraying an affability that borders on dorkiness. Melancholia could comfortably sit on the shelves of several genres. There is a strong science-fiction element that drives the story, and the long gazes of Justine’s and Claire’s complicated and ugly relationships settle it nicely among drama. At its end, however, what the film does best is examine the nature of depression and of people in their worst moments.
Melancholia is playing in select theaters now.