The Unhappy Bride
Melancholia will probably be best known for two things, that Kirsten Dunst showcased that she can be a serious actress rather than just another pretty face for yet another summer blockbuster, and for writer-director Lars von Trier's disastrous 2011 Cannes Film Festival press conference for the movie that resulted in him being declared persona non grata. Which is unfortunate because Melancholia proved to be von Trier's magnum opus to date, like how Malick's The Tree of Life had an epic operatic feel to it, so too does this film in taking on science fiction proportions when dealing with the issue about how different people treat and approach life in different fashion.
The first few minutes of the film will take your breath away. With detailed imagery and slow motion, complete with CG laden effects, this prologue puts up almost all the issues and themes that von Trier has injected into a simple, straightforward narrative. If Tree of Life showed the creation of Life at the beginning, von Trier's film deals with the end of Life as we know it, culminating in the destruction of planet Earth quite unlike the usual asteroid smash, but rather a bigger planetary object obliterating everything in its path. It sets up the finale because of this preemption, and the ending was nothing short of balls dropping scary when maximum impact becomes imminent.
And how we deal with the expected end of the world, is the focus of Melancholia and its characters, specifically that of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), each personifying very broad categories of people and attitudes that we adopt and can identify with. The narrative is broadly split down the middle into two arcs, each titled under the sisters. The first is set during Justine's wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), relatively ostentatious at John and Claire's resort home, complete with huge mansion and its own 18 hole golf course. Things all look mighty fine and dandy at first, blushing bride and all, until ugliness started to rear its ugly head in almost every aspect, from a disgruntled mom (Charlotte Rampling), womanizing dad (John Hurt), a disrespectful boss (Stellan Skarsgard), and even a sister who's a little too uptight in the planning of the wedding event.
The layers get peeled away systematically in what I thought was the more human-centric of the narrative in the first arc, dealing with a lot of characters, and each an aspect and facade of Justine's life, which isn't as rosy as we thought it was to begin with, but full of troubles and woes, hidden behind an extremely emotional and unstable person who finds herself wandering in and out of festivities, either dozing off, giving back as good as she got, or having random sex with someone she hardly knows. On her wedding day, yes, obliterating relationships with almost everyone in her life. And a nonchalant observation of a distant star by Justine set the stage and premise for the next arc, which deals with an impending doom where Earth gets threatened as it gets in the way of an inter-planetary collision course. Part of the appeal in this first arc as compared to the second, more intimate interaction between the key characters, is the ensemble cast who make their rounds playing various support roles here from family members to friends.
Developed by Lars von Trier when he was fighting a bout of depression, and working on the plot with Penelope Cruz who would have been Justine if not for her opting of the fourth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, Justine is von Trier's depressive experience rolled into the character, with Kirsten Dunst exhibiting her best in being all confused, troubled and finding it paralyzingly difficult to even perform the simplest of chores in taking care of herself. This character is of course in direct contrast with her sister Claire, who perhaps is the more normal of the three in exploration, dealing with how some would give way and panic, as compared to an already depressed state that cannot care any more, when faced with troubles and doom beyond one's control. Then there's John, who is constantly in denial with his belief that Earth can pull off a great escape, and finds an escape outlet himself when faced with irrefutable facts about how things would turn out.
And in between these character studies, is a plot and story that will find agreement with science fiction fans, and a cinematography that is most upsetting and unsettling, as it contains a lot of uncomfortable close ups that usually frame a person's facial features and expression, with little else during interaction. Production values for this film is kept remarkably high, despite knowing how von Trier can also work with sparse or sets that are close to nothing such as Dogville and Manderlay. Melancholia is a film to be experienced for its audacity and grandeur, and of course if you have never been convinced by Kirsten Dunst's acting chops, then this film will perhaps surprise the sternest of detractors.