Lars Von Trier's new film is an achingly gorgeous and sad meditation on depression. The planet Melancholia [also the name of a state of chronic depression] is coming to destroy the Earth in a few days' time, making the activities of two sisters and their extended family all the more pointless. The movie is slow, funny, acidly bitter and beautifully lyrical at times.
There are some movies you want to see by yourself. With something like this, which promised to be a long, deep dark dive into depression, it sounded perfect to be alone to experience it however I wanted, without having to worry whether a friend was getting impatient or noticing me crying, if such a thing happened. It was a cloudy Sunday afternoon and I took an enhanced brownie--after having to choose between dealing with annoying Upper West Side crowds or annoying SoHo crowds--and settled in for a nice long depressing movie--and it was soooo perfect.
We open with a monumental image of Kirsten Dunst's face, the entire shot cast in a yellow tint and ready to become a gorgeous painting. Soon we see birds falling from the sky in the background. Then a succession of super slo-mo shots of various scenes: a woman carrying a child across a golf course, but sinking knee-deep into the ground with every step. A horse collapsing backward into the mud. Dunst standing as electrostatic charges rise from her fingertips. Dunst in a wedding dress trying to run but held by muddy trails that pull at her [below]. When the movie references Last Year at Marienbadand Breugel's Hunters in the Snow in the first minute, you might know definitively that you are in the right place. After this achingly gorgeous prologue, we see a larger planet smash into Earth, destroying the entire planet in one handy blow.
Then a title: Part One: Justine. She is the sister played by Kirsten Dunst, late to the reception following her wedding because of a stretch limousine that can't negotiate a curve on the way to the country estate (with 18-hole golf course!) where her reception is happening. Now we are to understand that this planet Melancholia is going to destroy the Earth in a few days, but there is no mention of it during the first section. Of course, Melacholia also refers to a state of chronic depression, and thus all of these characters are living with a massive metaphor, that this mass of depression is coming to destroy their lives, and they can only deal with the reality of that. This may be off-putting to some, but for me: bring on the mega-metaphors!
When the bride and groom finally arrive, they are met by Justine's sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is trying to hold it together since Justine has kept all her guests waiting two hours, and now the vast itinerary of the wedding is thrown into turmoil. But wait, Justine says, I have to just say hi to so and so, and she runs off. Soon we see that the one she had to say hi to is a horse. They finally get her in the house, where we meet the rest of the family. Kiefer Sutherland, looking quite distinguished in his mature years, is tamping down barely concealed rage at providing this amazing, expensive reception for Justine, who is obviously miserable and in a well of self-involvement that precludes her from appreciating any of it. John Hurt is on hand as her bumbling and useless dad, and Charlotte Rampling as his acidly bitter ex-wife, who hates the institution of marriage and isn't shy about saying so--during her wedding toasts. Udo Keir is the wedding planner who has reached his breaking point, Stellan Skarsgard is Justine's former boss who is a trifle bitter at losing his employee, and finally Alexander Skarsgard (Stellan's son) is Justine's earnest-but-clueless husband.
For a movie about depression, I was laughing quite a bit during this first half. Mostly because every time you turn around, Justine is finding some way to further derail the ceremony. She runs upstairs for a moment, making all her guests wait, and after a second we see that she's decided to take a long soaking bath. She wants to see Claire's son off to bed, as all her guests wait, and then we see that she has fallen asleep upstairs with him. As things go on, you start to think; Well what is the point of all these rituals anyway? Why do they HAVE to cut the cake? Why does she HAVE to throw the bouquet? Can't they see that she's miserable and they should just leave her alone? Why don't they just go home? But no, they MUST go through these rituals, and it's all for Justine's sake, and goddammit she's going to be literally dragged through them no matter what. Then you start to think; Isn't the world going to end in a few days? So then what is the point of all this? They're all gathered here at this ceremonial "beginning" and ignoring the fact that the imminent destruction of the planet makes it all pointless.
This is exactly what you're supposed to be thinking. And for as truly annoying and self-involved as Justine is, we can also see that no one is listening to her or responding to her pleas--sometimes quite unambiguous--for help. It's also a bit of a revelation because no one has ever asked Kirsten Dunst to do so much, and she shows such enormous power and depth of feeling you are sitting there watching her suddenly vault into another whole class of acting, and sense the beginning of an entirely new career in more serious roles for her. I also want to mention that if you respond to the whole "terror of marriage for a woman" angle, you should give a chance to Birth, in which Nicole Kidman endures similar torment, sliding inexorably toward a marriage that something inside her tells her will be an unendurable nightmare.
The second half takes place a few days after the wedding, and focuses on Claire. It is also explicitly tied into the planet coming and dealing with the imminent destruction of the world. It reduces itself to only Claire, her husband John, their son, and Justine. It continues very interesting for a while, but in retrospect it seems as though interest deflated until the end, where the ending, while seeming inevitable, also was the least interesting part of the movie. I'm not complaining, it was a fitting ending that suited the entire thing, I'm just saying that by that time almost everything I found interesting about the film had wound down and all that remained was for it to end.
Also worth mentioning are the deployment of certain beautiful images. Okay, I will admit that I was immeasurably aided in getting into everything this movie had to offer by my brownie that had extra pudding in the mix, but you know how when you're having an excellent meal you take a bite and then collapse back, and let the flavors slowly unfold and transform in your mouth? This movie has images like that. They come on, but then they just keep sweeping over you. And Von Trier is smart enough to deploy them at careful intervals, so it's not a constant blanket of gorgeous images, but suddenly BANG there it is and it really hits you. I would tell you about certain of them, but it's probably best to let them just smack you it he face for themselves.
Overall, a great movie that you need to see. Even if you don't like it, it's probably a good thing to see anyway. This is a movie that is better to see at the theater not because of the massive visual spectacle (though there is a tiny bit of that) but just because you need to devote two and a half hours to paying attention to it, without the distractions of texts or the kids or munchies or whatever. If you can get into the idea of just surrendering yourself to a movie knowing its going to be long, lyrical, beautiful and suffused with sorrow and bitterness, this is waiting out there for you!
Yeah, if you like anything beyond multiplex fare, this is pretty much essential, and you should just go an surrender yourself to it.