'Melancholia' is an absolutely beautiful and dark film that is a perfect companion piece to 'The Tree of Life', in that both contain very intimate examinations of the way he face and embrace death, but where Malick depicts a dreamlike and graceful moment,Lars Von Trier's view makes for a much more somber and chilling experience. This is not a surprise in that it comes from the mind of a man who suffers from bouts of depression. With 'Anti-Christ' it caused him to push the idea of despair to its limits, torturing his characters until their pain equaled his own. He did so with such extreme violence and sexuality that it wasn't surprising that many hated the end result. With 'Melancholia' however he appears to be embracing that despair, giving the film both a tone of dread and acceptance that one could easily connect with.
The film opens with a beautiful assortment of imagery as Von Trier shows us Earth's destruction by a mysterious planet. He is avoiding surprises here and quickly reveals to the audience that everything will end and so the film focuses on the emotional journey leading up to that moment. The central story following this wonderful opening is in two parts. The first is a lighthearted and often comical wedding ceremony that works incredibly well in how it introduces the characters. The story concentrates on two of them: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) the bride and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).We quickly learn that Justine suffers from chemical depression which she had under control but it reemerges at the reception, just as a new star appears in the sky that catches her attention, causing her to alienate herself from everyone including her new husband. Claire on the other hand is much more level headed and does her best to keep her sister and the ceremony under control. The second half takes place a short time later. Justine's depression has consumed her to the point in which she needs help getting out of bed, eating or even washing herself. At the same time the star she noticed at the reception has been reveal to be a large planet, previously hidden behind the Sun due to its odd orbit, and now is closely passing by Earth. Its presence frightens her sister Claire as debates rage by various scientists as to whether it might get too close or even hit earth. Claire is stricken with anxiety as the thoughts of the destruction of life on Earth, more importantly the chance that her son might never get to grow old, cloud her mind as Melancholia gets closer and closer. This tone of dread that Claire and the impending doom emits equals the depression Justine is facing and so causes her to embrace and at times become intoxicated by the idea of life finally being put to an end. These contrasting views of the ever increasing chance of the world being destroyed is what holds this second half together story wise, and makes for its most compelling themes.
No one truly knows how they would handle death. Whether you will face those final moments with grace, apathy or total fear is something you will never know until the moment comes. The buildup to those final moments for Justine and Claire, their inner struggles, is what Lars Von Trier seems most interested in showing the audience.In doing so he creates so much suspense, such an overwhelming feeling of dread; it was like the air had been sucked out of the room. We know from the very beginning what Earth's fate was, but still watching Claire realize Melancholia is headed for Earth was emotionally devastating. I could barely breathe as the final moments of the film played out and was in a state of total shock and by the time that last scene came and the credits rolled I was on the verge of tears.
One thing that I believe made this work so well was the decision to focus only on this small group of characters. They are living in the country side, miles away from the nearest village. When the planet passes by Earth it affects electronics and so they are essentially cut off from the rest of the world. They, and more importantly the audience, do not know how the rest of the world if handling the coming destruction. There would no doubt be panics in major cities but Von Trier cares about only showing a much more personal and subtle reaction, avoiding spectacle and chaos like most disaster films. The result is a very honest and intimate examination of depression, despair and how we face death.
The performances are fantastic all around. Kirsten Dunst gives what is easily her best performance to date, one that is much darker and more complex than anything she has ever done. The way she shifts between moods and states of mind is flawless. Charlotte Gainsbourgh, an actress who is severely underrated in the United States, also gives an incredibly emotional performance and watching her break down is tragic. There are also some great supporting performances by Alexander Skarsgard, Keifer Sutherland and John Hurt.
The visuals are as gorgeous as they are eerie. Next to 'The Tree of Life' it is one of the most visually pleasing films to be released this year. The visual effects, especially for the nearing planet Melancholia, are beautiful.The cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro, his great eye for lighting and shadow, along with the artist vision of Lars Von Trier blend so well and are crucial to the films overall tone.
Lastly, I think this is not only Lars Von Trier's best film, but also one of the better films to come out this year. It is just so visually stunning and emotionally effective that its ability to move outweighs any flaws one might find. I wouldn't expect it to have such a powerful effect on everyone but the dark and challenging subject matter it explores, the visuals and the shear ambition of this work of art make it a must see.