MELANCHOLIA (2011) (***1/2)
Depression is an oppressive force. It filters all light through murky waters that the sufferer is drowning in. Lars von Trier finds a metaphor for it that seems so obvious and yet it comes off ingenious. A mysterious planet is headed for a collision course toward Earth. That's a big weight on your shoulders.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst, SPIDER-MAN) is getting married. But she's not really happy. Her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, TV's TRUE BLOOD) seems to know that she suffers from bouts of depression, but he doesn't understand the extents... or doesn't want to admit it. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, ANTICHRIST) is putting on the lavish event for her, but tells her that she hates her sometimes for how she acts to ruin things. Claire has the added pressure of being constantly reminded how much the wedding is costing by her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, TV's 24). When you meet Justine and Claire's divorced parents Gaby (Charlotte Rampling, SWIMMING POOL) and Dexter (John Hurt, THE ELEPHANT MAN) you might understand why Justine is depressed.
Von Trier does a remarkable job of putting us into the feelings of Justine. We feel the heavy pressure that the wedding, her family and her job put on her. Her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard, GOOD WILL HUNTING) announces her promotion during the reception and then sends the assistant Tim (Brady Corbet, FUNNY GAMES) to follow her around asking her to make decisions about a new project. With everyone coming at Justine, he natural reaction is to retreat and hide. This is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, but as the night goes along, she sinks deeper and deeper into a funk and she begins to sabotage her chances at happiness along the way. When she reaches out to her parents, they are more interested in fighting old wars than simply being there for their daughter.
After the wedding, we jump into the future after Justine and Michael have split. He may have thought he could "fix" her, but he wasn't up for the job. So Claire takes it on as best as she can and we can see that despite hating her sister sometimes, she does greatly care for her. Justine's depression gets so bad that she can barely move at times. Then the planet Melancholia moves out from behind the sun. Some believe it will just fly by Earth, but Claire starts to panic that it might not. John just brushes off her concerns, but it's just his way of not dealing with his own fears. So how does Justine react? Well before a rogue planet was set to destroy Earth, she always expected the worst so this new scenario only confirms everything she's ever thought about life.
Von Trier has gone to a complete 180 from his Dogma style days. This production is high gloss with some stellar visual effects. The opening is like a musical prologue that sets the somber tone with surreal imagery. Claire and her son sink into the green of a golf course. Lightning sparks from Justine's fingers. Dressed in her wedding gown, Justine slogs along as black gooy tar stretches out to hold her back. These images will come back into play at the end when Melancholia approaches Earth for its fly by or collision.
Dunst gives one of her best performances of her career. She makes Justine slightly bi-polar, but always vulernable. Anything could make her fragile stability crumble. It takes a brave performer to sink into the depths of melancholy as she does. Von Trier lumps it onto her character and she delivers the truthful response for a depressive.
Calling a Von Trier film accessible is a bit of a stretch, but not since BREAKING THE WAVES has he made a film that could touch a wider audience. The simplest explanation would be to describe it as a character piece on depression combined with an apocalyptic thriller. And like WAVES, this is more emotional without being manipulative or unneededly cruel to his characters. Justine is cruel enough to herself.