Lars Von Trier has long been one of my favorite filmmakers. I originally thought I would review Melancholia in order to try and dissect its perspective on Mental Health, but the more I thought about it I came to realize the extent to which Von Trier is ultimately a Feminist filmmaker.
Throughout his filmography, Von Trier has been consistent in featuring complex women’s roles in a vein as authentic as French filmmaker and Feminist hero Catherine Breillat. Both champion women’s stories with the same amount of attention usually given to male dominated depictions.
It has been many moons since I saw Von Trier’s deeply affecting “Breaking the Waves,” but Emily Watson‘s performance as the omen believing Bess still resonates as showing the type of unyielding loyalty that drives many women’s actions. No spoilers here, just know that she is motivated by right action.
Then there is the heartbreaking musical featuring “Icelandic Queen B” Bjork Gudmundsdottir in “Dancer in the Dark.” I will never forget how I watched this film with my mother and we were carried away by the bluntness of storytelling on display here. And we proceeded to have a psyche cleansing ugly-cry at it’s climax. Von Trier pulls no punches when depicting the ever trusting and pure intentioned Selma coming up against the morally corrupt mercenaries of the world.
These stories establish women as the female embodiment of Sisyphus. Ostensibly fragile yet deceptively strong beings pushing against a metaphorical rock. A theme that comes up over and over again in Von Trier’s movies.
Time after time he makes it clear that he understands the intricacies of symbolism and beautifully crafts experiences that are transcendent of linear media. Every frame could be a photograph. Every scene could stand alone as emotional yoga, with each asana serving a purpose and requiring the viewers endurance. In Melancholia these trademarks are no exception.
Melancholia’s tag line is “it will change everything,” and from the outset we are situated in impending doom as planets collide. The image is of Kirsten Dunst standing with electricity at her fingertips like a human Tesla coil as birds are falling from the sky. Symbolically reminding us of the cycles of life and how, with them, everything changes. A specific and appropriate overarching message for a film about depression.
The movie flows backwards as Dunst plays Justine, a new bride who is questioning her existence at the same time a planet named “Melancholia” is headed for collision with Earth. You shouldn’t be fooled by the premise, this is not your typical sci-fi fare where the main characters are scrambling to be saved. There is fear, but you get the sense that these characters would welcome the respite.
Also in the opening images we see Justine, in her wedding dress with her legs entangled in grey yarn which she later describes as being “very heavy.” The image is a visual manifestation of her depression.
We are then introduced to Claire, Justine’s sister played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, as she is carrying her son at the pace of double-half-time through a hailstorm. A precise metaphor for the experience of compromise necessary when navigating in relationships. Claire, in effect, carries the family and the weight of her conscience with her.
Movie geeks can tell you that the appearance of Udo Kier usually means that things are going to get weird. His presence in “Melancholia” is no different, as the wedding planner he is tasked with orchestrating the facade of a happy event where everybody is anything but happy. If your sense of humor leans toward the “dark” you may find yourself amused at the dichotomy of staunch dialogue against the saccharin nature of these opening scenes. Von Trier pokes fun at the frivolity of an event designed solely to give the impression of love. He does this by accenting how staged the tradition of wedding receptions can be.
Charlotte Rampling makes a brief appearance as Gaby- Justine’s mother. She stands as the not-so-murky yin to everyone else’s murky yang. Her no frills approach is that she sees through the pomp and circumstance of nuptials and shoots straight from the hip when confronted with Justine’s emotional malaise.
Actor Alexander Skarsgard is Michael the groom, while his real life father Stellan Skarsgard plays Jack – Justine’s boss, in the film. We get the first glimpses of Justine’s tenacity as a by product of Michael’s confused inertia, and Jack’s workaholic “shenanigans.”While these male characters appear to be acting in Justine’s best interest, she is aware of the fact that she is being manipulated. They each want something from her that she is not willing to give, and as her first act of power she does not yield.
Kiefer Sutherland plays John, Justine’s brother-in-law, an astronomer whose pastime provides a convenient window for viewing the approaching Melancholia. Justine’s relationship with John seems almost professional with his role being that of level-headed provider. This is the only male relationship in which Justine does not exert her feminine powers in some fashion. With the inevitability of Melancholia kissing the Earth we ultimately bear witness to John’s desperation which embodies both his weakness and his strength.
Justine’s transformation from archetypal “girl” to full fledged “woman” could be considered a coming of age story despite the fact that we are introduced to her in a chrysalis period when she is engulfed by her neurosis. We watch as she slowly breaks free and evolves into a pillar of strength just as the world is ending. This unfolding is saturated with complexity and once again presents Von Trier’s “female Sisyphus.” The difference here is that the “rock” bringing this story full circle is not just metaphorical.
Melancholia the movie, and the planet, illuminate the micro-substance known as thought and relationships juxtaposed with the enormity of the Universe and just like the tagline says it “changes everything.”