First you have to get past the opening ten minutes. Some will not make it. It’s a long, slow-motion artistic rendering of the last moments of the characters’ lives as one planet (Melancholia, which had been hidden behind the sun for millennia, and unknown to astronomers) crashes into another (Earth). Once you’ve suffered a little for Von Trier’s art, the real movie begins. It’s broken into two parts about two sisters, “Justine” and “Claire”, which my wife and I decided were really themed explorations on the manifestation of human depression and human anxiety. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a beautiful but tortured depressive, about to marry a man who adores her at her brother-in-law’s seaside castle/estate. I read this was filmed in Sweden, but we’re supposed to probably believe that it’s somewhere in the eastern United States. The characters never leave the confines of the estate, at least on film, and no reference to their location is ever made (only to “the village” that they sometimes venture into) – adding to the claustrophobia in what should be an idyllic setting.
Justine can’t handle a wedding, as becomes clear. She gamely tries to smile and go through the motions, but as the night progresses, she exits the festivities for hours at a time – taking baths, hiding, and even having random insanity sex with a boy/man she doesn’t know. Her destructiveness in one evening effectively turns her husband against her – even though he very well should have known what he was getting into – and leaves her jilted and left on the estate with her panicky sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Along the way, we see the film’s minor characters improvise their way across some of the best acting they’ve ever done – among them Stellan Skarsgard (always one of the best evil guys of our time), Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt. Best of all – best in the entire collection of top-flight performances – is (surprise!) Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Claire’s obscenely rich and extremely annoyed husband John. If he doesn’t sweep every supporting-actor award there is to win in the cinema awards game next spring, there is no justice, no justice at all.
We then shift to the post-wedding aftermath in the section of the film entitled “Claire”. Justine has an intense depression that is literally crippling. She can’t walk, and sleeps all day. Claire, on the other hand, is trying to calm her nerves about the recently-discovered planet Melancholia, which appears to be headed in a collision course for Earth but which “reputable scientists” – and more importantly to her, John – say will instead be a near-miss. Before watching, my wife and I were wondering why this film – which was available on-demand via Amazon before it even hit the theaters last Friday – was listed as a thriller. After the second half of this film, it’s abundantly clear. It is a predicament made believable, horrifying and all too real by intense acting, masterful story-writing and a bare minimum of special effects. I don’t need to give away the ending, as I more or less already did in this review – but it’s something that hasn’t left me all week.
Von Trier is both cruel and sympathetic to his two leads, as is his wont. He seems to bring the most incredible performances out of actresses – Emily Watson, Nicole Kidman, Gainsbourg and Dunst and Bjork for crissakes – and always puts them into crisis and multiple tests of will. In this film, it’s more that he’s playing two different types of mental anguish against each other. There’s the cold indifference of the depressive, vs. the outwardly nervous mania of the anxious. Oh, and planets smashing into each other and the apocalyptic end of civilization. If this all adds up for you as a good night out (or in) at the movies, then by all means, “MELANCHOLIA” is as good a film as has been made since last year’s “BLACK SWAN” and “BLUE VALENTINE”.