‘Melancholia’ features strong performances from all-star cast

Alex Williams

It’s an understatement to say Lars von Trier films are not for everyone. His Björk vehicle “Dancer in the Dark” is widely credited with being one of the most devastating films ever produced and “Antichrist” gained quite a reputation at 2009’s Fantastic Fest for its bizarre imagery and content. However, “Melancholia” finds von Trier reining in many of his more self-indulgent qualities and makes for a unique, discussion-worthy experience.

It’s well noted that von Trier has suffered from depression in the past and “Melancholia” portrays the condition with harsh, brutal honesty through Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a newlywed attending her reception at sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) massive estate. With everyone, including brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), waiting for Justine to dip into her familiar well of crippling depression, the impending apocalypse threatened by approaching planet Melancholia goes mostly unnoticed. That is, until the film’s second half, which focuses on Claire’s mental disintegration as the planet threatens to collide with Earth, a disaster which oddly makes Justine much more serene.

While von Trier often goes through great lengths to punish his lead actresses (especially Gainsbourg, who was absolutely fearless in “Antichrist”), Kirsten Dunst manages to escape much of the director’s notorious wrath. Her Justine is a delicate creature, sent on an emotional downward spiral for the slightest of reasons and Dunst easily gives the best performance of her career here. It’s easy to get frustrated with Justine, but Dunst’s despair over just how easy it is for her to fall apart is affecting enough to let us understand her, if not like her.

In the film’s second half, when Justine’s fear of inevitable doom is confirmed and she takes on a calmer demeanor, Dunst isn’t quite as prominent, but still just as effective. Meanwhile, Gainsbourg almost gives two different performances, playing annoyed and frightened for her sister very well in the film’s first half before she embarks on her own sobering descent as Melancholia approaches. Gainsbourg shines in both halves, often playing a character more fully realized but a bit less magnetic than Dunst’s Justine.

Sutherland proves to be a strong supporting player as Claire’s husband, and Alexander Skarsgaard brings his familiar “True Blood” charm to Michael, Justine’s new husband who finds himself not entirely prepared for the condition his wife surrenders herself to over the course of their reception. Wedding planner Udo Kier brings sorely needed comic relief with his growing frustration with Justine’s shenanigans and John Hurt is equal parts funny and heart-breaking as the girls’ dodgy father.

Lars von Trier makes “Melancholia” less of a typical disaster movie, starting the film off with a gorgeous (but self-indulgent) opening showing the planet colliding with Earth and preferring to focus on the psychological trauma the end of the world has on its characters. “Melancholia” is Lars von Trier in relatively noncontroversial mode, focusing on telling a small, intimate story about a family dealing with various emotional apocalypses as a literal one barrels towards them. The film is very well shot and the final moments in particular have a striking beauty to them that makes the film more than worth seeking out in theaters.

While its first half is much stronger than its second, “Melancholia” boasts some incredibly strong performances (including one that could possibly redefine Kirsten Dunst’s spotty career) and mostly restrained work from Lars von Trier. The film is equal parts experience and narrative, and while its loose threads may frustrate some viewers, Lars von Trier provides a memorable catharsis with his finale that makes “Melancholia” something that can leave you elated, shattered or just entertained.