Melancholia is a Dark Delight: a Recommendation from Steve

Depression is no laughing matter. Of that truth I have first hand experience. I suffered through a period of clinical depression about a decade and a half ago. It was the most agonizing, frightening experience that I have ever encountered, and that includes two bouts with cancer. You might think that I would desire to avoid any reminder of that awful period of my life, but I looked forward to seeing the movie Melancholia with great anticipation because I had heard that it dealt with depression in a powerful way. I wasn’t hoping that the movie would bring me catharsis (although I love when movies do that), since my depression was long enough ago and adequately dealt with. I was simply yearning for the sense of shared experience that is another hallmark of great movies. I was not disappointed. In fact, I was delighted. Melancholia more than lived up to its critical acclaim. It stirred up many memories, but far making me feel depressed all over again, it left me feeling invigorated. Although the folks in the film don’t fare so well, it was a reminder to me that I had passed through that darkest of times with the strength to live on in hope. It is strange to use the word hope in connection with this very dark film, but that is part of the wonder of great art. It is capable of working on many levels simultaneously. However, even the greatest art rarely achieves universal acclaim, so read on to see if this film might be for you.

Melancholia begins with a wordless prologue that uses a series of images to foreshadow the themes of the movie. The subjects in most of these images move in ultra-slow-motion, giving you time to soak them in. This is not a movie to watch from a distance, but rather one that requires immersion. Although the ultra-slow-motion is only used in the prologue, some will say that much of the rest of the movie moves painfully slow. They mean that as a harsh critique. I would agree that significant portions do move painfully slow, but I mean that as high praise. This is a movie about pain and writer/director Lars von Trier has done a masterful job of making that pain palpable. After the prologue, the movie is divided into two parts, which are named after the two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

The first part focuses on the wedding reception for Justine and her husband, Michael (Alexandar Skarsgard). As a pastor, I have first hand experience of the difficulties of family dynamics that get magnified around weddings, but, fortunately I have never been involved in a wedding reception that was as crazy as this one. Things get off to a bad start when Justine and Michael arrive two hours late because the stretch limo they were riding in couldn’t maneuver through the narrow, winding road that led to the site of the reception, the home of Clare and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Their home is a mansion, which has, as John repeatedly points out, its own 18-hole golf course. It is not clear how John came into his money, but, again, he does repeatedly point out, as the reception disintegrates, just how much of that money he spent on this fiasco. Clare has arranged all the details for the reception. She knows that her sister has a history of melancholia and she is clearly a caretaker trying to make everything right. However, just as money can’t buy you love, it also can’t buy a happy wedding reception. Given her mental state, a small, simple gathering would have been best for Justine. The pressures of this elaborate gathering are too much for her and she slowly crumbles as the evening proceeds. Clare says she has done all this for Justine, but her goal really seems to be to create the perfect wedding reception so that she can feel that all is right with the world. Ultimately, her goals are selfish and Justine gets crushed in the process. How often do we hurt the ones we love because we are too self-centered to see the true consequences of our actions?

Clare is not the only self-centered participant at this reception. As already mentioned, John is fixated on the cost of this lavish affair. Michael is well-intentioned, yet seems clueless in regard to the depression that his new wife struggles with. Justine and Clare’s divorced parents use their wedding toasts as an occassion to maliciously attack one another and the mom even goes on to attack the institution of marriage itself. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” she says. Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard, Alexandar’s father) is more concerned about his advertising business than the wedding, using his toast to shift the focus to a promotion for Justine, but then pressuring her to give him a tagline for an advertising campaign that night. As everything falls apart around them, the rest of the guests simply continue on with their dancing and merriment. At first this struck me as odd and artificial. Surely they would notice, wouldn’t they? But, then I realized that this was true to my depression experience. It does seem that the world goes on its merry way, oblivious to the pain that is destroying your life. I’ve complained about a number of films recently in which the characters were so pathetic that I didn’t want to spend two hours with them (Bridesmaids, The Hangover, Bellflower,  Seth Rogen’s character in 50/50). The characters here are pathetic, but I found them to be intriguingly pathetic.

In the second part of the film, Justine has slipped into full-blown clinical depression. She can barely move. Again, speaking from experience, she nails this part of the performance. The focus in this portion of the movie is on a newly discovered planet, named Melancholia, that has been hidden by the sun. It will soon pass closely by, or possibly crash into, the Earth. Clare is frightened, John is excited, and Justine doesn’t care. How would you face the possible end of the world as we know it? As Justine gets her feet back on the ground, Clare’s growing fears cripple her. The tension builds to a satisfying conclusion.

Much of the movie is filmed using a hand-held camera. Generally I do not like the jittery and occasionally blurry effects that come from the use of hand-helds, but in this case I thought it was the perfect choice. It drew me into the proceedings. This is a movie about feelings and, as such, it is meant to be experienced, not simply watched. This camera technique made that happen. Much has been said about Dunst’s fine performance. I heartily agree, but would add that I thought the entire cast was stellar. In a year when every movie was flawed in a significant way, I felt this came close to perfection, so I place it right at the top with The Tree of Life.