It’s the end of the world as Lars Von Trier knows it, and he feels (oddly enough) fine in Melancholia, the Danish auteur’s latest cinematic conundrum. The yin to Antichrist‘s yang, Melancholia might be the most restrained and eerily calm film about the apocalypse ever produced.
Von Trier’s tale of two sisters is divided into two parts, each one focusing on one of the siblings. “Part 1: Justine” deals with the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The party is being held at the sprawling estate owned by Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, star of Antichrist and the first Von Trier actress to come back for a second round) and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), a gothic castle-like mansion flanked by, as John is fond of pointing out, an 18-hole golf course. The reception has already gotten off on the wrong foot as the bride and groom arrive two hours late due to their ultra-stretch limo having trouble traversing the narrow winding road up to the house.
Despite this setback, the party looks like it’s going to be a success as the guests are treated to a somewhat strange yet rousing speech by the best man, who also happens to be Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and a shy yet touching one from the groom himself. However, it’s soon clear that all is not right with this gathering as we’re introduced to Justine’s cold and outspoken mother, a woman who “doesn’t believe in marriage” (Charlotte Rampling) and the bride’s eccentric and not quite all-there father (John Hurt). The groom’s family doesn’t seem to be present at all, and the uptight wedding planner (Von Trier alum Udo Kier) refuses to look at Justine, covering his face whenever he walks by her as he’s convinced that her tardiness “ruined” his carefully conjured ceremony. Meanwhile, Claire is playing the role of the bossy and overbearing older sister and John is stressing out about how much money this cost him.
All this could be considered just (relatively) harmless family dysfunction were it not for the fact that something much more troubling is going on with Justine. It’s soon revealed that she suffers from a deep depression, an illness that she’s finding more difficult to keep under wraps during what should be the happiest day of her life. She leaves the reception several times, wandering out to the golf course by herself and locking herself in the bathroom to sit in the tub to stare at the wall. When she tucks in her nephew, Leo (Cameron Spurr), for the night, she falls asleep next to him. Before too long, Justine’s depression and self-destructive acts have gotten the better (or worse) of her and the wedding ends up a complete disaster.
“Part 2: Claire” takes place some time later and concentrates strictly on the family dynamics between Claire, Justine, John and Leo. However, there is a new development as well, to say the least: a planet (which has been named Melancholia) that had previously been hidden by the sun has revealed itself and, according to the doomsayers on the Internet, is on course to crash into the Earth. John is convinced this is all a bunch of hooey, but Claire is visibly anxious — and, thinking she may be living her last days, has become much more patient and affectionate toward Justine, who has become almost paralyzed with depression. However, as the fateful day when Melancholia may or may not destroy every living thing on Earth approaches, Justine seems to get better, facing the potential extinction of the entire human race with a strange calm that isn’t so much indifference as it is a peaceful embracing of forces completely beyond our control.
Melancholia is a stunning piece of work. While it may not be as “entertaining” (for lack of a better word) as its outrageous and freakish companion piece, Antichrist, it’s a more insightful and mature work — you get a sense that Von Trier is now determined to deal with his own depression constructively (or, at least, philosophically) rather than by lashing out with images of sexual violence (and talking animals). The film is mesmerizing — you never quite know where it’s going or what it’s up to (indeed, there are strange little details in the first act that suggest the wedding might be an elaborately staged sham designed to get Justine out of her funk) as it slowly and carefully unfolds like a dream you’re remembering one little piece at a time. Visually, the film is gorgeous — gone are the days of the grungy sepia tones Von Trier used in Breaking the Waves and The Kingdom as every single frame of Melancholia is practically “glowing” (as someone describes the bride at one point).
Kirsten Dunst obviously relishes being able to do something other than scream for Spider-Man to save her; while she didn’t completely blow me away with her performance, it’s still her best work since Interview with the Vampire (which, by the way, was released exactly 17 years ago today). Meanwhile, Gainsbourg seems to relish not having to cut off her own clitoris with scissors in this one, expertly underplaying her role as the (usually) quietly suffering sister/wife/mother. It’s nice to see Sutherland play a role that’s as far from 24‘s Jack Bauer as possible, and the rest of the supporting players all manage to steal the spotlight at least once, particularly Stellan Skarsgard (another Von Trier regular) as Justine’s despicable employer who tries to get the bride to do some work on her wedding night.
Like all of Lars Von Trier’s work, Melancholia is a difficult piece. It assumes you’ve accepted its challenge from the get-go and it expects you to pay attention and create your own interpretations. And, despite (or perhaps because of) its low-key approach to its extreme material, it makes for one of the most exciting and fascinating movie experiences of the year.