Lars Von Trier is a man very a very profound sense of storytelling. His works rarely have the most interesting stories but succeed more so on the shoulders of the themes they ride. In the case of Melancholia, the film follows a somewhat familiar narrative about a character entering a married life while the world around her turns is little more than an endless spiral of emptiness with no excitement sparked from a wedding. The story is used as a front for Lars Von Trier to capture a psychedelic vision of nihilistic broken dreams.
The entire intro scene to Melancholia plays out like a collection of classical paintings that begin to move slowly very slowly against the backdrop of an orchestral piece, immediately giving viewers a sense of the stylish manner of filmmaking they are in for. But at the same time it serves as a warning for essentially what the entire film chronicles. There is constantly a feeling that Melancholia is focused on style over substance. It neglects the need for much of a story because it relies more on the director's self-indulgent obsession with dark themes without weaving them together into a story. Though there is certainly a powerful reach into the world of melancholy, the actual narrative execution is a bit too subtle for its own good. The imagery and physical appearances of the actors is what the film relies on to convey meaning to audiences rather than much of a developing narrative. And viewers are left to tolerate all this at a pace which is extremely slow, a burden for even many of the most coherent films available. So when it anchors down the movement of an absurdist piece like Melancholia, the damage is all too great. Melancholia's lack of story prevents it from going anywhere, and though that may reflect the reality of life in the eyes of Lars Von Trier's depressive episode that inspired him to create the film, it fails to offer the most inspiring piece of cinema.
However, there is no denying the physical beauty in Melancholia. It may not offer enough to live up to the standards of a feature film, but Lars Von Trier's piece is almost a 136 minute piece of performance art with a lot of beautiful imagery. Captured on a small budget, Melancholia uses a limited collection of locations to fuel the movie with wonderful scenery. It is all captured by beautiful cinematography which turns it into works of classical art at many times, while moderating a more intense and slightly shaky technique to emit a feeling of claustrophobia during the more intense moments. This manages to capture some shots of surreal beauty and intense realism, contrasting a feeling of grace with one of darkness and symbolizing the emotional instability that is melancholy. And thanks to the artistic style of the feature, Melancholia is also a strongly atmospheric piece. There is constantly a feeling of nihilism that plagues the narrative, not for its melancholic themes but due to the fact that the impending apocalypse is a clear plot dynamic. This cleverly reflects the mindset of its characters who view existence as a pointless wait for death while others around them make their existence a greater burden with personal problems. Ultimately, Melancholia is indeed a film which captures the emotional feeling dictated by its title. It's just that this isn't always the most entertaining narrative, particularly for those who are not already embalmed in the surrealistic and explicit manner of filmmaking Lars Von Trier is known for. I'm a person who has mixed feelings about it, and though I admired the stylish nature of Melancholia, I consider the lack of structure in the story to stand in the way of it achieving true greatness.
However, there is greatness offered in Melancholia beyond simply the style of the film. This can be credited to the talents of the cast, particularly Kirsten Dunst.
Kirsten Dunst delivers one of the finest performances of her entire career. Kirsten Dunst constantly has a blank expression on her face. Not one of boredom, one of lifelessness. One of death, one of the purest melancholy that the entire film embodies. The human touch of Melancholia rests very heavily on how Kirsten Dunst is able to convey the titular emotional state to viewers, and she manages to balance a sense of understanding to connect to viewers while also managing isolate herself away from them so they understand what true melancholy is. Kirsten Dunst appears to have a perfect understanding of her character's internal suffering and conveys it without resorting to techniques of melodrama or sentimentality, rather capturing it with the subtlety of someone hiding themselves away from the world. Her performance is a very physical one, and though she doesn't have to branch out in her display of emotions she still captures the raw suffering of the part through how Lars Von Trier is able to emphasize everything about her effort so that we can see the same beauty in her that he has clearly discovered. Kirsten Dunst delivers a mature performance like none she has ever given before in Melancholia, and it adds an entirely new level of credibility to her talents as an actress.
Charlotte Gainsbourg follows with a strong effort of her own. Though her frequency in collaborating with Lars Von Trier makes her effort less of a breakthrough than Kirsten Dunst's, it also establishes that she perfectly understands the universe she is working within. Capturing a different style of melancholy to her counterpart, Charlotte Gainsbourg is slightly more explicit in conveying her emotions. This causes a strong contrast between the two and also allows for them to share an intense chemistry as two people stuck in a condemned world as their psychology begins to overthrow them. Charlotte Gainsbourg is a perfect fit for Melancholia.
Melancholia features excellent work by Kirsten Dunst and a passionate style for grim visuals by Lars Von Trier, but the actual narrative of the film is too slow, subtle and self-indulgent for its own good.