When one is asked to describe depression, one is faced with a problem.
It is not so much thought of as an ‘illness’ for some people; more a result of a confused personality that doesn’t know whether it wants to be intro- or extroverted. Others find themselves enveloped by dark external circumstances forced upon them by everyday life and thus struggle to restore mental normality. Yet more feel ‘cursed’ by the burden of a certain kind of creativity which, if not exorcised, prevents you from resting, from eating, from sleeping, even from thinking – or alternatively from eating too much, resting too much, sleeping too much, thinking too much, when the coin flips.
But then for others, it is simply an illness. I say ‘simply’ knowing that to say this does not come close to doing it justice. To say depression is ‘simply’ an illness is like saying Earth is ‘simply’ a planet, or that humans are ‘simply’ mammal. There are extra levels to it that I have only begun to delve into here.
Therefore, when you give an artist the task of describing depression, they’ll do it in their own unique way. They’ll show it by using metaphor or apocalyptic imagery or even a large black blob, but rarely by using a short three line descriptive paragraph. Lars Von Trier is such an artist, and Melancholia is arguably his finest – or at least his best looking – description.
Back in 1995 Von Trier initiated an Avant-garde filmmaking movement in poor Danish cinema known as ‘Dogme 95’, partly in response to the special effects and fantastical story elements on display in rich Hollywood. Upon viewing the beautifully shot Melancholia, though, you see how far Danish cinema and Von Trier himself have come. An American film in all but ending, it has an all-star cast, a budget approaching $10 million, and a typical ‘end of the world’ premise.
That’s pretty much where the Hollywood similarities end on a plot level, though. It’s a story in two parts; the first about a dysfunctional family wedding, the second a tale of an individual’s depression in the face of impending disaster. Von Trier shoots with a realistic documentary-style of filming that seems almost contradictory to the crisp, high quality visuals on offer.
Meanwhile, that impending disaster is coming in the form of a rogue planet heading towards Earth. Scientists and astrologers predict it will pass closely by our planet, and the event becomes a once in a lifetime opportunity to see something spectacular. That it certainly will be, but there’s a sting in the tail that only the most imaginative theorists would have warned of: upon passing, Melancholia’s course turns around and brings it into a head-on collision with Earth, completely obliterating it in the process. Don’t worry, this is no spoiler: Von Trier gives his audience the ending at the start of the film. We proceed through the movie knowing the world will end, and it is this key element that most separates the film from a traditional Hollywood blockbuster.
Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland are the most impressive of the American cast. Dunst portrays the medical condition Melancholia to devastating effect as newly-wed Justine, somehow making it feel more hopeless than the approaching planet of the same name. Both ‘episodes’ of the two-part film are very much about her and the struggles that her sister Claire (played by Von Trier regular and arguably the more attractive of the two, Charlotte Gainsbourg) goes through in helping her deal with the debilitating condition.
Of course the film should not be taken too literally – it just so happens, after all, that the new planet invading our solar system in Melancholia’s plot bears the same name as Justine’s illness. There’s also no focus on the world’s reaction to the planet’s approach; no media outcry, no last minute end-of-the-world parties, no final speech from the president. But all of these things would feel out of place in what is essentially a very intimate film about the relationship between two characters. The large budget helps to complement their story, rather than the reverse that we see in so many other films of this nature. Special effects never take centre stage despite the movie’s clear proficiency with them.
It’s certainly not one for the faint-hearted. The incredibly bleak ending will be seen as refreshing by those disillusioned with Hollywood or life in general and, frankly, depressing by others who prefer escapist fun. For this reason it’s hard to recommend it to everyone, but we really shouldn’t expect any less from a Von Trier film.
8 / 10.