Kirsten Dunst is pretty much a revelation in this film.

Melancholia comes to us from auteur, controversial director Lars von Trier. I thought 2009’s Antichrist was one of the best movies of that year and easily one of the most haunting, provocative, and interesting movies I’ve ever seen. I can talk about that one endlessly. Melancholia will probably need a few more viewings before it’ll reach that kind of appreciation for me, but it is similarly a deep, harrowing, and personal work. What it lacks in shocking, horrific imagery is made up for by the horrors of the inward life and the arduous collapse of a depressed person’s tenuous grasp on the life she’s supposed to have.

The first part of the movie is simply called Justine and deals with the night of her wedding. Justine is played by Kirsten Dunst. She is being married to a really nice guy named Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgaard. When we first meet them, they’re on their way to the wedding reception put on by John (Kiefer Sutherland) who is married to Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsborough). They are seriously late and it seems like something that really annoys John and Claire but who cares, Justine and Michael seem really happy and in love.

It’s really nice to see Skarsgaard in a supporting role like this after all these years of Eric Northman.

For the next hour of the movie, we are witness to the slow but inexorable decay of Justine’s control over herself and the image she is projecting on the people at her wedding. Throughout this long sequence, which will test some viewers’ patience, we are given hints of all the background dysfunction that afflicts these peoples’ lives. Justine is right in the center of it, so much is expected of her from everyone that we kind of sympathize as she begins to self-destruct the longer the reception wears on and the more she is reminded that everyone is watching her. That said, as her behavior becomes more and more selfish, irrational, and downright spiteful for no real reason we begin to see the person underneath Justine’s fake smile and constructed beauty.

By the end of the night, and the close of her chapter of the movie, Justine has pretty much ruined everything and broken the heart of her beau. Michael is a sweet guy and when she asks him “what did you expect?” he handles it with a grace that is heartbreaking. Since we’ve seen Justine do some pretty heinous things by this point, the second chapter begins with us pretty much despising her.

Which isn’t to take away from Kristen Dunst’s amazing performance. She has always been pretty good (and unfairly maligned by assholes who get hung up over her physical flaws) but I’m not sure she’s ever been given the opportunity to go as deep and dark as von Trier takes her here. Surrounding her are other great actors doing great work. John Hurt makes an impression as her goofy, spirited father while Keifer Sutherland and Charlotte Gainsborough do really solid work throughout this chunk of the movie. Then there are the Skarsgaards (both Stellan and Alexander, though Stellan is not playing his son’s father in this movie haha) who are both great in their limited screentime.

One of the sinister, beautiful images that open the film and pave the way for some of the thematic underpinnings.

The second chapter of the film is Claire. We rejoin her family, John and their son Leo, as Justine comes to stay with them some months later in the throes of a much deeper depression. She is almost catatonic and when she’s lucid, she is snarky, bitter, and a total fucking cunt to everyone around her except Leo. She spouts off prophetic tidbits about Melancholia, the titular planet which is now hurtling toward an apparent fly-by with our own.

This is where the science fiction of Melancholia comes into play. In the first chapter, Justine notices a red star in the sky that has, by the next day, moved from position and defied the explanation know-it-all John has given it. After that, the star (and the hidden planet it turns out to be) is ignored until Claire’s chapter.

Because the opening sequence shows, among many other things, Melancholia’s collision with Earth, we are aware that Justine’s musings are probably partially correct. Most of Claire’s chapter deals with her reaction to the presence of this monolithic entity, John’s insistence that the science shows it’ll pass us by, and concern for her son should the worst happen. Amidst all this is Justine’s shadow cast over her, a reverse metaphor for the incomprehensible threat posed by the looming planet.

Claire’s chapter of the film allows Charlotte Gainsborough to do some impressive work. We watch her struggle to be brave, fail, and struggle again. Her reaction to Melancholia at this point makes it clear that this whole “plot” about a planetary collision is a grand, ambitious metaphor for the oppressiveness of dealing with, well, melancholy in someone you love dearly. Claire just wants Justine to be happy, just like she wants John’s assertions about the planet to be true. Deep down, though, she knows that she has no power over it and even in facing that, finally, she still endeavors to go out with a bit of grace.

Still, the movie (and Justine) are not kind to Claire’s earnest search for a way to handle this. Only through the innocence of Leo, something both women seem to want to protect out of love for him, is a kind of cathartic method to face the end of the world reached.

Another image from the opening of the film, and in retrospect one of the most poignant.

It’s hard to know exactly all that von Trier was trying to say with this movie. Similar to Antichrist, it’s heavily open to interpretation. It seems clear that the story of this planet on a collision course with Earth is a metaphor for Justine’s depression and its effect on the people around her, particularly Claire. Leo’s role in this seems significant but it’s difficult to pin down. I wonder if the notion is that the only way to redeem the world is through love. Perhaps Justine’s bleak way of looking at life and the society of others, even her family, is the only reaction to our world that makes sense. Except when you factor in love, which makes us do things contrary to our cynicism, which is what happens to Justine.

Melancholia is a film that will reward you with its weighty emotional and intellectual depth, giving you tons to think about after you see it and many reasons to watch it more than once. It is also beautifully scored, performed, and photographed. Sitting down with it, I knew it would be one of the best movies I would see in 2011 but I have to say how surprised I am by its inversion of what The Tree of Life seemed to espouse. The two films might be thought of as distinctly counter to each other and that’s something that, considering they are both likely to make my Top 15 for the year, I find pretty fascinating.

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