Made by and, largely, about a depressive, Melancholia is perhaps the oddest film about the end of the world, mainly because it is deeply ambivalent about whether or not it would be such a bad thing. Directed by Lars von Trier (The Idiots, Dogville and Antichrist), Melancholia is a pervasive and shattering film that will hit home hard.
The film begins with a short, highly stylised dream sequence filmed entirely in slow motion that recalls similar scenes in Antichrist. Then begins the bookishly labelled ‘Part One: Justine”, following Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding reception. As she succumbs to a state of depression that threatens to ruin all of her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) carefully laid plans. This leads her through several unrewarding confrontations with her sister and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), her own new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), her warring divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) and her boss (Stellan Skarsgård). ‘Part Two: Claire’ begins a few days after the wedding and focuses on Claire and her attempts to bring Justine out of her new bout of depression. Meanwhile, the planet Melancholia is causing her a lot of anxiety, as she fears it may soon collide with Earth. John assures her it will pass by, but Justine tells her different.
The wedding reception scenes are shot in a very documentary-like style, recalling Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme ’95 classic Festen. Like that film, the emphasis is on the collected emotions of a variety of people and their various friendships and enmities. Despite all the jubilant speeches and the carefully planned schedule, bitter confrontations and rampant self-doubt ruin the day. The ceremony and tradition itself collapse under the weight of unbridled humanity and individualism as many of the characters fail to be marshalled into the coalesced wedding reception group. Though Festen was a riveting drama, these sequences in Melancholia are more distanced. Ultimately, the only response, and it is the one that one assumes Lars von Trier encourages, is to laugh at the debacle.
The latter half is more effective and ultimately more successful than the first, though the two halves come together in unexpected ways. The wedding scenes are a small-scale version of the inter-planetary events that will follow. The film becomes more of a chamber piece, mostly limiting the cast to four people: Justine as well as Claire, John and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr). As the planet looms in the sky, getting closer, we see everyone’s reactions to it. John is a rationalist and an astrologer and ardently believes in his facts and figures, which state that Melancholia will pass by. Claire is afraid, but her adherence to social functions and normality bring about a paralysis of sorts. Justine, on the other hand, recovers from her depression as the planet nears and seems to welcome a collision.
The film avoids showing wide-scale panic, hysteria and destruction in favour of a more quiet and philosophical approach. Melancholia is not a disaster movie and what special effects it does have are muted and all the more convincing for that. As the film progresses, it has less the effect of a thriller than a profound meditation on the permanence and moral necessity of life. In the end, it is humanity and its rules and regulations, its religions and its sciences, that is found wanting. Frequently accompanied by the strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the planet is more a sign of our ultimate helplessness in the face of nature than it is of the special-effects heavy destruction that Hollywood enjoys boring audiences with. The lasting impression from this shattering film is, indeed, a strong sense of melancholy.
Melancholia is Lars von Trier’s most emotionally powerful film as well as one of his most pointed and consistent. Admittedly, none of the above sounds like much fun, but it is a film that works beautifully and has a real and lasting power. In many ways, it is a film that needs to be seen to be believed and it is one in which the final images will probably stay with you for the rest of your life.