If the thought of a nearly two and a half hour ode to deep deep depression sounds like your cup of tea, then boy - have I got a film for you. The latest film from the never boring Lars von Trier is considerably more easily watchable than Antichrist. Though you certainly won't mistake it for the feel-good experience of the season. Where it works it works well, and where it doesn't that's more a personal "do I really need to be watching this?" evaluation than a criticism of the film. He delivers a very localized story about relationships and dysfunctional family on the eve of mankind's extinction. Combining a keen visual look with strong performances and the ever present strain of Wagner it's both character study and perhaps a fantastical wish fulfillment scenario from inside the head of someone suffering deeply from depression. I'm glad I saw it. But you might want to temper your plans afterward. To give you a calibration, I wasn't as deeply down on the universe after seeing something like Precious or a recent Adam Sandler film. But it definitely left at least a small mark.
The film opens with the end of the world. Shot in incredibly beautiful super slow motion which takes ones mind off the contrast with the horribleness of the event. Not as dramatically as the beginning of Antichrist but in a similarly lovely looking manner. Then after an opening title card we're thrown back a few days to Justine's (Kirsten Dunst) wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). They're late to the reception as the ridiculously large limo she hired can't navigate the turns on the road leading to her brother in law John's (Kiefer Sutherland) estate. It's a home, hotel of a sort filled with all the accoutrement's of a lavish English country home, stables and all. The event is costing him a fortune, something the perpetually pissed off John isn't shy to point out. He's the least of the problems as we follow along at the reception meeting a surprisingly high number of dysfunctional relatives. With Dunst at the center as the depressive bride and her for some reason befuddled new husband. If you don't feel like being annoyed with family members there's also Justine's incredible asshole of a boss who both promotes her and gives her a work assignment to complete on this most special of days. Yep, he's in advertising...
Justine clearly has had her battles with depression and this evening doesn't do anything to help it. Everyone keeps asking her if she's happy or not. Each time it looks as though she'd rather someone rub sand in her eye than answer. As a rule of thumb something ain't right if the bride is crying and pounding alcohol from the bottle to stem the tears. Also not so good if same bride jumps some random non hubby dude out on the golf course between courses. Hence it's not a great surprise that things unravel pretty seriously as the night wears on.
That's just the first part. After much of the wedding might has been run through we're skipped ahead a day to continue the story from sister Claire's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) perspective. This second act is when more comes out about the rogue planet that's heading (allegedly) past earth. Why it's named Melancholia isn't clear at all - not the sort of name you should give to a planet you expect not to ram into the earth.That second half deals more with the relationship between the siblings and how they deal with the time they have left. Keeping in mind that for one of the two the end is probably a much desired (and expected) relief.
From a visual perspective most of the scenery is ominously beautiful. Shots of the people interacting feel harsher and uglier in contrast. The other-worldiness and ever present classical music reminded me of a more downer version of Tree of Life throughout. The film is leisurely paced, though not in a bad way. At about the 30 minute mark in this 2.5 hour odyssey is when I recall thinking that all this family strife just seems like a waste of time. Which I think is somewhat the point of the involved demonstration of the people emotionally hurting each other at the wedding as doom bears down. And perhaps that feeling of pointlessness is exactly the intent of a film that seems to be a metaphor for battling chronic depression.
The performances of the two female leads are strong, without a sense of believability for both Melancholia would be a dud. Given the other films I've seen Dunst in it;s shocking to see her smile so little. It took me a while to realize that was somewhat what's so unsettling about the whole affair. Her performance holds everything together. To the extent that if you've ever had personal experiences at similar to what Dunst's character is going through the film may hit a little too close to home. Enough to ruin the joy some might derive from her nude scenes. Point being this film demonstrates that Ms. Dunst has lots more ahead of her than cheerleader roles and being Spider Man's girlfriend.
I generally don't go in for purposefully downer films. But this one was interesting enough to hold my attention throughout. Certainly many of the visuals will stick with me for a while. Most positively, this time no one got any portion of their genitals snipped off. Instead everyone died together in a crash of planets. For those looking for a silver lining on the way out of the theater at least this spares the Alexander Skarsgård character a lifetime of a bad marriage.
Personally I'll keep hoping Van Trier will make a return to comedy someday. I really did enjoy Boss of it All.