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A Modern Masterpiece — Melancholia (Film Review)

4 min read

Artificial Eye

It's been twelve years since 's depression disaster film first graced cinema screens. It only felt natural that the filmmaker famed for his devastating portrayals of human suffering would eventually progress to the total destruction of mankind itself, but what bestows Von Trier's take on the film with marked poignance is its unique and deeply personal marriage with mental illness.

 

is titled not only for the depression of protagonist Justine () but also for the fictional rogue planet which collides with Earth in the film's finale. This is by no means a spoilerVon Trier leaves no doubt in your mind as to the inevitability of total annihilation, opening the film with a series of mesmerising tableaux vivant which include, in breathtaking ultra slow-motion, Melancholia's impact with Earth. The narrative unfolds without the question of the world's eventual end playing on the viewer's mind, instead, we watch the action of the unaware characters with a sickening sense of dramatic irony and looming dread.

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The film opens on newlyweds Justine and Michael () who are late to their wedding reception because the stretch limousine they've hired is too large to navigate the rural backroads. It's a comical scene, aerial shots highlight the ridiculousness of the image as the limo driver, Michael, and Justine each take it in turns to try and maneuver the vehicle. However, it's underpinned with a lurking sense of claustrophobia: the car too large for the country lanes, the skirts of Justine's great dress blooming around her as she sits in the driver's seat, and of course, the ever-present knowledge that all of this will be obliterated in the coming days. 

 

The couple eventually arrive at their reception at a picturesque castle owned by Justine's sister, Claire, () and brother-in-law, John, (Keifer Sutherland) where the rest of the film plays out. The reception is anything but picturesque—Claire and John chastise Justine for her lateness, having set out a strict schedule for the evening's events, and their annoyance only grows as over the course of the night Justine withdraws further into a depressive episode. Justine's divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) turn the speeches into a public slanging match while her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) is insistent on mixing work with pleasure, spending the night hounding her for an advertising campaign slogan. 

 

There are definite remnants of Von Trier's Dogme past in the shooting of many of Melancholia's scenes. The camerawork is often handheld, weaving with uncertainty between a delightfully eclectic and esteemed troupe of actors whose unrehearsed interactions emanate a Dogma-esque emotional rawness that makes the viewer feel like a fly on one of the castle's walls. The loose, precarious cinematography lends itself particularly well to Justine's lowest and most private depressive moments, when catatonia has sunk its teeth in and she requires the help of her sister to bathe. Von Trier succeeds in portraying, so viscerally, the absolute debilitation and rock-bottom infirmity of depression without the inclusion of self-harm or suicide—it's the cold, brutal, and quiet daily reality for many of those suffering with the disorder.

Artificial Eye

What truly defines Melancholia is its composition of contrasts. The heavily stylised tableaux vivant starkly punctuate the relaxed, handheld camera movements that make up the bulk of the film, just as the film itself is divided into an oppositional two-act structure with one part dedicated to each sister, first Justine and then Claire, and the oscillation of their dynamic. In Part One, Justine is subsumed by her depression and is propped up through the wedding party, with gritted teeth, by her sister. In Part Two, the tables turn, and as Claire's apocalyptic anxiety mounts, Justine's depression enables her to face the end of the world with the same cool reserve that her sister possessed only a few days before. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are masters of performing feminine emotional extremity so, to nobody's surprise, their turns in Melancholia are nothing short of excellence. Gainsbourg particularly shines in the second act, her rising distress as the rogue planet presses closer and closer gut punches you with horrifying palpability.

 

Melancholia is a modern masterpiece. From the operatic score, which predominantly features music from the prelude to Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde, to the artistic evocations of Millais' “Ophelia” and Bruegel the Elder's “The Hunters in the Snow”, to the film's narrative breadth, containing marriage, divorce, sex, familial relationships, class, depression, and the end of the world itself—everything points to grandeur. Perhaps one of the greatest films ever made about depression and one of the most unique and harrowing takes on the apocalypse, Melancholia is more than a must-watch.

Melancholia will be re-released in cinemas on September 1st.