‘Melancholia:’ intimate portrait of depression

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

“Melancholia” (2011) is a science fiction drama directed and written by Lars von Trier. It stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland. It was produced by Meta Louise Foldager and Louise Vesth.

The film’s title refers to two aspects of the film. “Melancholia” is the name of the enormous planet that draws dangerously close to colliding and destroying Earth. “Melancholia” also refers to the crippling depression that Justine (Kirsten Dunst) struggles with most of the film.

It is no spoiler alert that Earth is destroyed. In fact, Earth is destroyed in the first ten minutes. Most of the film is a flashback to Justine’s last days on Earth. “Melancholia” is more concerned with how humans deal with depression and the inevitability of death.

Life is portrayed in an intimate manner. The camera work is shaky. It moves quickly from one character’s face to another character’s face, rarely moving back to create an establishing shot. The isolation it creates makes the audience feel how far Justine is quickly slipping away from happiness and reality.

The film is so up close to the characters that you see every little twitch of their face. You see every little subtlety that makes human emotion so complex. Because of the intimate way in which we view the characters, any over the top acting would immediately look out of place.

An hour of the film is roughly an hour of the wedding. It gives the feeling that the audience is watching a high quality and depressing home video. We feel every excruciating minute of Justine’s pain. She withdraws from the wedding and comes back. She withdraws again. She comes back. It is all very real.

Kirsten Dunst is a perfect symbol of depression. She weaves Justine into a character that is at once ethereal and incredibly selfish. What separates Dunst’s depiction of depression from other films is that she rightly portrays depression as a complex set of emotions.

I have gone at great lengths praising the film’s realism but there are moments in the film which depict the more bombastic side of emotion. This is particularly resonant in the first ten minutes of the film and subsequently the last few minutes of the film.

The prologue to the title is a series of slow motion images. All the images are taken from moments that occur later in the film but are also more metaphorical in their representation of events. The images remind the viewer right from the beginning that although the emotion in the film is mostly subdued, there is an emotional war going on beneath the surface of every character.

The images are complimented by Richard Wagner’s prelude to his opera Tristan und Isolde. The music is grand and epic. It is the most melodramatic aspect of the film but is appropriate considering the stake of everything. The film portrays a subdued version of human emotion but makes sure to convey the impossible struggle humanity must endure to find peace.

The prologue of the film was the only section I thought was too long. The story is told methodically which generally strengthens the reality and beauty of the emotions presented. The prologue, however, was a little over indulgent. It was reminiscent of the ridiculous amount of slow motion employed in Zach Snyder’s 300.
Praise has been given to Dunst’s performance but the supporting cast of “Melancholia” deserves praise, too. It is one of the best ensembles of 2011. The film includes actors such as Kiefer Sutherland (24), Skellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting), Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood), and John Hurt (Alien).

Claire, in particular, is an adept foil to Justine. Claire is the responsible one, while Justine is the dreamer. Gainsborough is able to aptly portray Claire’s hatred for Justine as equally as her deep concern for Justine’s well-being.

Near the end of the film (and I will avoid giving anything away) the main characters have to face the inevitability of death. Four of them become symbols of the different ways people deal with a doom that is out of their control.

“Melancholia” perfectly depicts the various stages of depression and the struggle to deal with its effects. This is brought about through the pain so honestly portrayed by the sublime cast.

“Melancholia” also serves as a thoughtful piece on how human beings deal with death. Besides the overlong opening, “Melancholia” is a beautiful film.

Image © 2011 – Magnolia Pictures