When entering the cinema to see Lars Von Trier's attempt at a "disaster film", I was apprehensive to say the least. For one, I was not overly keen on 2009's tedious and unnecessarily repulsive Antichrist. Watching the trailer of Von Trier's newest mind-fuck, I was worried that it would fall into the same trap as Antichrist: Being far too involved. It appeared self indulgent and unrealistic, even laughable.
This sombre telling of a strange planet named Melancholia colliding with our earth is, of course, absurd in every way. A handful of critics have also labeled the film as 'too slow' and even 'boring'. I, however, felt a pleasant balance of horror, sadness and discomfort.
The story is split into two halves: The first structured around Kirsten Dunst's spiritless Justine, whose country wedding party is where a good proportion of the film takes place. The second half is presented through the eyes of Justine's sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The two parts of the drama are perfectly paralleled; one presented with feelings of a hollow, defeated outlook on life and the other with a desperate longing to exist.
Melancholia has the most severe of Science Fiction set-ups, having a planet colliding with our earth and ending mankind's existence for good. Yet without generalising, Melancholia would ironically leave your typical, thrill-seeking Sci-Fi junkie feeling underwhelmed. This is a far cry from Independence Day.
Von Trier's film-making style treads familiar ground to Sophia Coppola's, displaying elements of Marie Antoinette and Virgin Suicides Not only because they are sharing a protagonist in Dunst, but because of their long silences and organic character developemnt. This comparison leads me to the question of whether "the end of the world" is even needed for this kind of family-orientated drama? And whilst this particular tragedy could work to a certain extent without the Sci-Fi element, Planet Melancholia's menacing presence throughout made for a strangely hypnotic and haunting viewing: The planet not only being an elusive figure of fear for the characters and audience alike but signifying Justine and Claire's inner turmoil.
Critics have admired Dunst's delicate portrayal of Justine, calling it her comeback after being out of Hollywood's spotlight for some while. This was not just her "comeback" but her breakthrough. Justine's steady decline into a state of complete desolation and despair is the sensitive and realistic representation of mental health that an audience of 2011 needs. Watching Justine is like car-crash syndrome - there is no way to tear away as she destroys everything in her path, much like Melancholia itself.Charlotte Gainsbourg, who normally plays some form of erratic basketcase takes on her most unusual role: The everywoman. Her performance as a typical middle class mother is her most beautiful. Though the plot is, as mentioned, absurd and ridiculous, something still lingers frightfully close to home. In many people's opinion, this could happen, and eventually it will. Our existence will inevitably come to an end and Claire's reaction has us nailed to the seat with its sheer honesty. She acts as one would imagine any sane mother would in such an awful situation.
These are two of the finest female parts written in years and people are still shying away from the idea of the film, mainly because of Von Trier’s track record. The director has been continuously accused of showing women in a shallow and overtly sexual light. Though in his previous pictures his misogyny could be argued, Melancholia is a true exception to this. Not only are Justine and Claire complex and realistic human beings but they also have a rare cinematic strength. The men of his film flee in one way or another and it is his women who (quite literally) stick it out to the end. As Kirsten Dunst says herself on the matter, '[Von Trier] feels more comfortable with a woman portraying his emotions, so how is that misogynistic?'