(Lars Von Trier, 2011)
Lars Von Trier is a truly dazzling talent. His facility with the cinematic medium is comparable with any director working today, and he pursues his individual interests - obsessions, really - across each film with an impressive focus and intensity. I just wish his obsessions were more interesting. Von Trier suffers from episodes of clinical depression and his last two films, this visually ravishing melodrama and the horror of Antichrist, are both attempts to explore and/or represent this condition in film. Its not that depression isn't interesting - although to those lucky enough never to have been afflicted, it isn't - but Von Trier has little to say about it, instead settling for an impressionistic portrayal of the state itself.
Melancholia is split in two. The first half is a quite brilliant account of a long Wedding reception which displays just how casually Von Trier's exceptional talent is deployed. There's an effortless quality to the way he lays out the players and traces the tensions and strains between them, which centre around Justine, played with a wounded, truthful sullenness by Kirsten Dunst. The bride, Justine cannot shake off the depression threatening to derail the entire celebration despite the efforts of her new groom (Alexander Sarsgaard), worried sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and assertive, confident brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland).
She wanders the halls and grounds of John's mansion, sleeping, having a bath, rejecting her new husband a few times, brutally insulting her Boss and having sex with his assistant on a golf course in-between interludes where she returns to the reception and attempts (badly) to play the happy bride. The probable foundations of her troubled character are all too evident in the personalities of her divorced parents, both present. In what may be the most terrifyingly wrinkled, gravel-voiced ex-couple in film history, John Hurt plays her fun-loving, possibly alcoholic father, while Charlotte Rampling is her destructively bitter mother. Neither offers her any comfort.
All this is lent a different cast by the prologue; a series of vividly captured slow-motion tableaux of apocalypse, most of them referencing the imagery of Northern European art and featuring some of the characters we are about to meet.
Von Trier encourages a sort of catatonic rhythm throughout the first part, reflecting Justine's view of the world in its peaks and fugues. She seems obsessed with gazing at the sky and notices the absence of a certain star which will become key.
This is the focus of the second half: Justine's sister Claire and her journey towards a state of grief and depression close to that of her sister. That absent star was hidden behind the planet Melancholia, which is approaching Earth, though scientists are certain it will pass by. While Claire frets about the possibility of impact, Justine reacts with a weary acceptance, having expected this all along. Some of Justine's dialogue may accurately reflect the experience of depression but it makes for almost silly viewing: meatloaf "tastes like ashes", Earth is "Evil".
Claire's growing hysteria is nicely played by Gainsbourg, who is well-suited to a role as one of Von Trier's brutalised heroines having already excelled as one in Antichrist, and her situation is more relatable to a general audience: her fear for her Son's future and battle to allow John to reassure her.
Of course we know all will end badly. We've already seen the world end, Earth swallowed in a collision with the immense Melancholia, but Von Trier is good enough to ensure we watch all this and hope that it was somehow wrong, a bad dream. His film is an involving, ambitious drama and a beautiful piece of cinema, stunningly shot and scored to the rapturous, portentous strains of Wagner's "Tristan & Isolde".
It may be about depression, but it's just too beautiful and full of the vitality and swarming detail of life and humanity to actually be depressing. That in itself is a sort of triumph.