After the trauma of Antichrist, I went into my next Lars von Trier experience with reluctance, but Melancholia (2011) definitely rewarded my “bravery.” Like most von Trier films, it’s moody, atmospheric, and decidedly bleak, but it’s also a meticulous, beautifully composed film, and a rather astonishing science fictional metaphor for coping with depression.
It’s a tale of two sisters, told in two chapters. The first belongs to Justine (Kirsten Dunst), an advertising copywriter who comes to her brother-in-law’s country club to marry an earnest young coworker named Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard). The outrageously lavish wedding reception, organized by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), turns out to be an awkward, protracted affair thanks to Justine, who underneath an outwardly cheerful façade is battling a positively crippling sense of despair. The aftermath of this event is touched on later in Claire’s chapter, which occurs in the shadow of a looming cosmic event: another planet, Melancholia, is passing close to the Earth. Despite the reassurances of her business-minded husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), Claire worries about a collision: an apocalyptic fear made worse by the return of Justine, whose depression has taken another, even more intense turn.
Melancholia won’t be for everyone — it’s heavy, slow, and dark to be sure — but for me it really resonated, a psychological study with a clever science fictional spin. Anyone who’s wrestled with depression is probably familiar with that desperate feeling of everything being the end of the world. Von Trier literalizes this metaphor brilliantly, helped considerably by gorgeous cintematography and raw, moving performances from his leads, particularly Dunst, who is exquisite. Like most von Trier films, occasional perverse decisions sometimes raise an eyebrow, but for the most part it’s a polished narrative, slow but assured, that cleverly integrates the personal emotional crises of its characters with a true global apocalypse. A remarkable film.