In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, Best Actress Award winner at the Cannes International Film Festival) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård of “True Blood” and Straw Dogs) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth… Melancholia is a psychological disaster film. It’s the end of the world but also the start of something new for Lars von Trier, whose mind-blowing “Melancholia” offers perhaps the gentlest depiction of annihilation one could imagine from any director, much less the Danish provocateur.
Dunst is Justine, an advertising copywriter who’s about to get married (to a sweet, but rather out-of-his depth chap played Alexander Skarsgard) at a remote and lavish castle. The wedding has been organized by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), but quickly slides into a Festen-style nearest-and-dearest disaster: Justine’s parents (John Hurt, obsessed with women called Betty, and a deliciously citric Charlotte Rampling) don’t get on; her arrogant boss (Stellan Skarsgard) is trying to conduct business; she herself, when she’s not crying or holding up proceedings by taking leisurely baths, has sex with a stranger on the estate’s golf course.
Justine suffers from depression, almost a pathetic fallacy seeing that a planet called Melancholia is heading for a collision course with Earth within days. The film, split into two sections, contrasts the two sisters: Justine, troubled, but with a darker vision of existence that seems not only to chime with Von Trier’s, but to better prepare her for the onrushing calamity than Claire’s more rational personality.
Danish director Lars von Trieroffers his own, highly personal version of apocalypse: a celestial collision rendered in surprisingly lovely digital effects and accompanied by mighty blasts of Wagner. The film takes its title from a rogue planet that appears suddenly in the night sky and seems to be heading straight for Earth. The setting is a grand estate on the edge of the water, complete with stables, a golf course and manicured expanses of lawn. English is the language, and dollars are the currency, but this is less a specific America (a place Mr. von Trier has never visited and the theoretical location of most of his recent films) than an abstract space of moneyed entitlement. The aggressive opulence of 21st-century capital coexists, somewhat awkwardly, with an older, aristocratic elegance.
The word Melancholia also, not coincidentally, names an emotional disorder described by Freud as “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.”
Whereas the last 15 years of von Trier’s career have been characterized by a state of extreme agitation, going back at least as far as “Breaking the Waves,” this latest endeavor preaches Zen-like acceptance in the face of mankind’s potential extinction. This remarkable calm is perhaps the most shocking thing about a film in which much of the action centers on the dynamic between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose French accent is never explained), as a passing planet threatens to obliterate the earth.
Freud’s diagnosis pretty much captures the mental state of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman whose history of crippling depression overshadows her lavish wedding party and threatens to blight her chances at future happiness. In the course of a long, hectic night she comes increasingly undone, to the bewilderment of her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and the exasperation of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Compared with the humorless, grimly responsible Claire, Justine is impulsive, self-indulgent and charming: the flighty grasshopper to her sister’s responsible, dutiful ant.
Presumably filmed in Denmark, and set in a weirdly stateless, featureless location – a sort of Scando-amerika – the movie tells us first about a cosmically catastrophic wedding reception. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a manic depressive, whose wedding has been expensively arranged by her long-suffering sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her blowhard brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Tension erupts between the sisters’ estranged parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) and the evening ends in chaos. Yet perhaps this disaster was written in the stars, because a rogue planet called Melancholia is heading for Earth on a collision course. Wealthy, worldly Claire is horrified at the end of days, but gloomy Justine greets the forthcoming disaster with torpid calm, and as the vast planet looms, blotting out the sky, an apocalyptically terrifying thought dawns.
The apocalypse, when it comes, is so beautifully rendered that the film cements the quality of fairy tale that its palatial setting suggests. Music, including a Wagnerian overture, is used to maximal, almost overwrought effect: Von Trier seems to be implying that it would be timid, cowardly even, to employ a less momentous score in the service of such fundamental consideration of the meaning of existence.
MELANCHOLIA boasts a stellar ensemble cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard and Udo Kier.