In the pulsating and gorgeous final minutes of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) calmly embraces her nephew Leo in a makeshift shelter of wooden sticks as they frivolously await their immediate, impending doom.
Meanwhile, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister and Leo’s mother, distraught and fearful, distances herself from her family. She’s at hysterics because she can’t accept her certain destruction as a newly discovered planet, Melancholia, is merely minutes away from a head-on collision with Earth.
The scene comes as a cathartic climax for the characters in the film, one that reveals their true nature at their most vulnerable moment. I’m not spoiling anything by describing the ending as the film’s remarkable 8-minute opening sequence immediately shows the destruction of Earth. With that suspense out of the way, von Trier instead focuses the attention on thematic characterization and exploring how these characters react to a literally Earth-shattering apocalyptic doom.
The film comes as von Trier’s follow up to the controversial Antichrist, and is a more subdued and, well, melancholic exploration of the depths of depression. It’s an intense melodrama that uses the apocalyptic backdrop merely as a vehicle to study the polarizing effects of depression, a topic that von Trier is all too familiar with.
The narrative is divided in two parts, each one focusing particularly on one of the two sisters, Justine and Claire. Part one opens with newlyweds Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) as they whimsically arrive late to their own reception after a minor limo mishap.
Giggly, carefree, and seemingly in love, they enter the confines of the glamorous, fairytale mansion where the reception is being held, only to discover that most of their family and guests have been waiting impatiently for them for hours. Among the disgruntled family is Claire and her wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who paid for the extravagant reception, though their frustrations wear down once the party gets going.
At first glance, all seems to be going well, but pretty soon the perfect wedding becomes the perfect familial meltdown. Justine and Claire’s mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), despises the idea of marriage and barrages herself in her room in protest; Dexter (John Hurt),their fun-loving father, runs off with two young hoochies; and Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), Justine’s self-centered, manipulative boss, hires one of his low-level copywriters, Tim (Brady Corbet), to follow her around and try to get a tagline for an ad campaign out of her. On top of all this, it’s revealed that Justine’s suffering from major depression and is using every bit of energy she has to try and force happiness.
It’s a shaky first half that develops into unhinged awkwardness as Justine’s flighty, manic nature wreaks havoc on the already diminishing scene. She consummates her marriage not with Michael, but rather Tim, in an especially awkward scene that teeters on the edge of rape. By the end of the first half, Justine has single-handedly managed to destroy her short marriage and tear her family apart.
Yet, as much as the first half flounders, the second half manages to redeem the film somewhat. The discovery of Melancholia within Earth’s orbit, coincides with Justine’s move in with Claire and John after, presumably ruining whatever she had with Michael. Von Trier’s fascination with crippling depression becomes more prominent in the second half as the threat of Melancholia’s collision with Earth proves to have a profound effect on both Justine and Claire. Essentially swapping personas, Claire becomes frantic and distraught about the situation, while Justine actually seems content and somewhat satisfied with the situation.
Compared to his last film, Antichrist, Melancholia is certainly a more restrained, yet still eerie in tone, melodramatic character study thinly veiled with a sci-fi subplot. Like most of von Trier’s film’s it’s an immensely personal film that attempts to convey his own bouts with depression. Cinematically, Melancholia, like most of von Trier’s canon, is a starkly beautiful film with gorgeous cinematography, meticulous camerawork and editing- complete with von Trier’s trademark super slo-mo scenes of artistic imagery. However, like the most challenging of von Trier’s work, the film falters in its’ dissonant tone that never successfully eschews thematic narrative as much as it tries to.
Overall Grade: B