You’ve got a new chap and you want to have a ‘real’ date, one of those ones where you make conversation for longer than it takes him to get over the doorstep. So you do dinner. And you do a movie. I did dinner. And I did Melancholia.
You’ll find a fuller plot synopsis anywhere online and each one will be as vague and muddy as the next, because trying to summarise this film is like trying to recreate the Taj Mahal with dry pasta. Roughly speaking: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is getting married and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has organised it. A few weeks on from the wedding, a planet called Melancholia will pass dangerously close to the earth. That’s all you’re getting.
What’s truly stunning about this film is that von Trier’s expert and achingly human touch eliminates any chance of melodramatic science-fiction or B-movie foreboding. Instead the film manages to nod to, and acknowledge, both of these possibilities to excellent cinematic effect, whilst steering a perfectly-tuned course straight through the middle, driven by the strength and sensitivity of the character depiction.
It is rare to find a cast so perfectly realised as von Trier’s. Alexander Skarsgård gives a beautiful and poignant performance as Justine’s adoring husband, stricken with the quiet fascination of the devoted. Charlotte Rampling is both compelling and hateful as the icy mother-of-the-bride and Tom Hurt makes an excellently foppish failure of a father. And thank god every one of the supporting cast was so believable that they could carry a whole film of their own, or they would have been annihilated by the sheer strength of the three at the centre of the piece: Gainsbourg as the long-suffering Claire, Kiefer Sutherland as Claire’s fiercely self-confident and impulsive husband and Dunst as Justine.
To give a truly representative analysis of their performances is way more than a review will allow – I’d need a thesis – but I will say that though Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes, and gives a career-defining performance, and Gainsbourg will reduce you to tears (it’s just a matter of time – I went down about 45 minutes in). Kiefer Sutherland’s excellent depiction of a rich, unsympathetic can-do entrepreneur is highly believable and unsettling, and one of the strongest pieces of character acting you’ll see this year.
Enabled and supported by the excellent cast, the film also manages to pull off one of the most nuanced and intelligent depictions of depression I’ve ever seen on screen. Where it triumphs is in examining both sides. One gets a sense both of the emotional stagnation and exhaustion of the depressed and the reactions of those who are affected.
There is understanding, there is toleration, there is frustration, there is loathing, and each of the reactions is depicted as so human and rising from such a natural place in each individual that your sympathies will find themselves stretched, wrenched, torn and generally mightily abused. You know those films which make you want to temporarily numb your ability to empathise – Requiem for a Dream, Life is Beautiful, Grave of the Fireflies? Melancholia is in good company.
This film is annoyingly, frustratingly good, it’s making me babble like a schoolgirl about her first crush. I cried, my date cried. We both came out wide-eyed and shaking a little. Worst first date ever. One of the finest cinematic experiences you will ever endure. See it.
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