Sunday 12 February 2012

Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier

After watching Antichrist a couple of years ago, I pressed play on this one with trepidation.  Von Trier is reknowned for his extreme, overtly artistic avant-garde visions and Melancholia is no different.  It's an exploration into the psychosis of depression.  Kirsten Dunst plays Justine whose suffering affects the family around her, played out to the backdrop of an oncoming apocalypse.  Needless to say the title is befitting of the melancholic film.

It begins with a slow motion view of the apocalypse, framed in stillness like a beautifully surreal Dali painting.  As the film begins at the end, it instills a sense of insurmountable dread and hopelessness that permeates the film as a whole.  With no dialogue, the only sound is that of Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde which recurs periodically throughout the film as an annoyingly repetitive musical motif.  Like the title, the use of Wagner is befitting - von Trier's film is as schmoltzy and overblown as the unending melodies and doomed love of Wagner's score.

Knowing the ending, the film becomes a waiting game for the characters' inevitable doom.  Separated into two acts, the first focuses on Dunst's Justine.  Even on her wedding day, she suffers from episodes.  Despite her father noting "this is the happiest I've seen you", it is all just a facade.  Over the course of the celebration, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic - she fluctuates between violence and sedate lethargy and is unable to find pleasure in normal activities.  Unlike the stillness of the opening, the remainder of the film is shot with a hand camera, the constant movement suggesting mental claustraphobia.  In the background, the planet 'Melancholia' is set on a collision course for earth.  It's a physical metaphor for Justine's state of mind - like her depression the planet will not just 'fly-by' but is set on an inevitable flight path with catastrophic consequences.  Her psychosis is such that she welcomes death: it is her only escape and she succumbs to it.  The second act focuses on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the impact Justine's mental illness has on her family.  With the planet edging ever closer, Claire's anxiety manifests into a frantic fight for survival.  Justine on the other hand is madly calm in this time of desperation, holding the family together.

The central performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg are equally heartwrenching and disturbing.  For Dunst in particular this is a bold and successful change of pace.  Yet the film cannot escape von Trier's own self-involvement.  He is undoubtedly an original, artistic mind and the film's audacious design reflects this.  But, as a sufferer himself of occasional depression, it seems that Melancholia is a sort of catharsis that doesn't translate into enjoyment for the viewer.  It's a technically accomplished film that, for all its oddities, lacks profundity.