From the outset of Melancholia, it is clear that what you are watching is not your average, run of the mill film. An extended slow-motion sequence shows in turn an hysterical woman fleeing across a golf green, electricity shooting from the fingertips of a young girl, a horse loose in an immaculate garden and finally reaches its crescendo as a planet smashes through the Earth. In addition, the scenes are played out over a recurring, crashing classical score, making for an incredibly striking opening. This haunting set piece initiates the foreboding, claustrophobic tone sustained throughout the film.
After the breathless opening, the action settles down into Part One, the wedding reception of Julia (Kirsten Dunst). The party is comprised of the instantly recognisable family tensions that run through many large gatherings; the uptight sister, the overbearing mother, the kooky father etc. Added to the mix are Julia’s slimy boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) and her brooding brother in law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Dunst’s performance requires an impressive range not shown in her previous work, and she handles the responsibility effortlessly. Her severely, manically depressed Julia must walk the tightrope through the simmering family tensions, merrily dancing at one moment, refusing to come out of the bath the next. The uneasy atmosphere of the wedding is accentuated by jerky, intimate camera work, which simultaneously involves and repels the audience.
Part Two of the film is a slightly different affair. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) agrees to take in her sister Julia, who is by now further into her depression. Looming over the house is the planet Melancholia, both figuratively and literally, as it continues on a crash course with Earth. The dialogue heavy Part One of the film is replaced by moody, pregnant silences as Claire struggles to break through to her sister. In this second half of the action it becomes more and more difficult to empathise with Julia, the excruciating tension becoming wearying as the malignant planet looms ever closer. This can be seen as both a positive and negative feature of the film.Director Lars Von Trier should be commended for his realistic portrayal of depressive behaviour, but at the same time it is not necessarily the most gratifying experience for his audience. Another criticism is that the casting of Kiefer Sutherland is slightly odd. Though he is by no means terrible, the actor seems slightly out of place.
Melancholia is at heart a slow burning, deeply emotional drama. It is clear that it will not be to everyone’s taste, but the striking imagery and deep underlying themes will certainly give rise to extended discussion. The fantastical, overwrought conclusion provides an elegant release from the simmering distress built up masterfully over the course of the film, leaving the audience saddened, yet satisfied.