In Von Trier’s latest, we’re greeted again with another luminous, cinematic prologue shaped in a similar fashion to his previous work ANTICHRIST. Sweeping, poignant scenes play out to a balletic score, with super slow motion giving and eerie, monstrous quality to many of the images. When we finally see the world consumed in a fiery death, the metaphor of all encompassing destruction and despair is writ as explicit as the title of the film itself.
Unfortunately, unlike ANTICHRIST that managed to build upon its Gothic Overture, MELANCHOLIA never seems to gel with its theme. Two stories are told, one of a wedding that’s destroyed by a severely depressed sister (Kirsten Dunst), and the second from the perspective of the other sister as she falls apart due to the literal destruction of the world.
Rarely has Von Trier’s use of metaphor been so explicit, so crude in its application. The connection between the two stories is the paralysis and insidiously destructive nature of depression, and it’s spelled out almost in neon lights. These are a bunch of miserable people being miserable to one another, and those lighthearted individuals that do make a show (Udo Kier as a wedding planner! John Hurt as a drunken father-of the bride!) make their exits quickly.
Despite the galactic nature of events, there’s surprisingly little scope to the film’s construction. We feel trapped in the environs of the castle and its companion golf course, but unlike the cabin in the previous film, the claustrophobic environs more annoy than fill us with dread. When we do get some stunning outdoor sequences (the ‘copter shot of the horses galloping through the fog is a masterstroke) the film almost elevates to the level of Von Trier’s previous successes. Alas, we’re quickly brought back to same milieu, the same depressing scenes of depressing people being depressed.
Performances of the female leads were, I think, exactly what the director intended. I’ve got no hate for Dunst, and she does provide some real charm at the outset of the film, with charming chemistry between her and her new husband at the outset of the film. Gainsbourg makes what I think may be the first for a female protagonist in a LVT vehicle, a return engagement! I don’t think it’s a fault of their performances, it’s just that each is given the incredibly challenging job of making distinctly, annoyingly depressed individuals somehow compelling for a few hours. The rest of the cast (including TWO Skarsgårds) do an ample job – the fault, I’d suggest, comes from a story that’s so heavy handed that no acting fireworks could have done much to overcome the weight of the bloated central metaphor.
MELANCHOLIA is a humourless version of McKeller’s fine end-of-the-world work – while I doubt LVT has seen this Canadian classic, the calling out of the ending of LAST NIGHT as a “shit idea” created one of the inadvertently pleasing comedic moments of the film. The wedding scenes reminded of superior scenes in BREAKING THE WAVES or even THE CELEBRATION, the operatic space elements paled to 2001 or even this year’s (overpraised) TREE OF LIFE, and the wretched depression of the female leads seemed, strangely, more pedestrian, run-of-the-mill sadness than the arch misery of most Von Trier protagonists.
It’s a fact that Von Trier is among that rare pantheon of directors that merit having each of their films seen without question. This work is no different, and while it’s a frustrating film, seemingly a wasted opportunity, it has its moments of real beauty and craft that elevate it from being a mere dirge. The really depressing thing about MELANCHOLIA is that it doesn’t live up to the epic nature of both its title and its prologue, a middle-of-the-road picture from an artist who rarely, if ever, has traveled in such a banal fashion.