'Melancholia' artistically exposes the ravages of depression
November 23, 2011 5:00 AM
Kirsten Dunst gives a stunning performance in "Melancholia."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When a mirror image of our planet appears in the sky in the movie "Another Earth," it tantalizes people with the prospect of distant doppelgangers, second chances and redemption.
When a planet shows itself after hiding behind the sun in "Melancholia," it's like an enemy who has been called out. It looms large in the sky, and let's just say the film and planet aren't named Melancholia for nothing.
It is, after all, from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, who gave the world the brilliant "Breaking the Waves" with Emily Watson, the Bjork anti-musical "Dancer in the Dark," and the grim psychosexual thriller "Antichrist," among others. He also made inflammatory comments about Nazis that got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival.
However, no one could deny the power of Kirsten Dunst's performance in "Melancholia," and she won the best actress prize there. She is the bride in a union that it might be measured in hours rather than days.
"Melancholia" isn't about starter marriages but cosmic, apocalyptic collisions. It's about the possible end of the world -- not just as we know it, but period -- and it's filtered through two sisters.
Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and "filthy rich" husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) are parents of a young son and hosts of the lavish wedding reception for Justine (Ms. Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The party is being staged, and that is the proper term, on Claire and John's estate, which is so sprawling it has its own 18-hole golf course and horse-filled stables.
But Justine's glow quickly gives way to the darkness passing over her body and soul like, well, some sort of solar eclipse. Her personal depression is overshadowed by the planet that experts predict will pass Earth by and never be seen again.
If they're wrong, well, Justine says good riddance. "The Earth is evil. We don't need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it." Soon she's the calm one, accustomed to doomsday scenarios, and Claire is fearing Melancholia and melancholia.
This may be one time when it's good to be gloomy, to think the glass half empty mind-set is too positive. Already fearing the worst, Justine quips, "That's right. Sometimes it's easy being me."
The title reportedly was inspired by Mr. von Trier's own depression, and Ms. Dunst gives a stunning performance as a woman who can no longer pretend to be happy and becomes so incapacitated that, while being propped up by her sister, she cannot even lift her leg to enter a soothing bath.
The cast also includes John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as the sisters' dysfunctional parents and Stellan Skarsgard (a von Trier regular, dating to his paralyzed oil rigger in "Breaking the Waves") as Justine's work-obsessed boss. Stellan also happens to be the real-life father of Alexander, cast as the groom.
"Melancholia" is beautifully and artistically shot, with the poster image of Ms. Dunst in her wedding gown reminiscent of 19th-century paintings of Ophelia. Her choice of bouquet -- lily of the valley -- would seem to be paradoxical, given how the flower typically stands for the return of happiness and love's good fortune.
When Earth and Melancholia, universal and personal, engage in a dance of death, there is precious little good fortune. Except, perhaps, for moviegoers willing to be depressed in the name of drama.