An arthouse take on the 50s B-movie When Worlds Collide, Melancholia is like a filmic embodiment of that irritating platitude, “Cheer up – it’s not the end of the world!” For Kirsten Dunst’s chronically depressed Justine, the destruction of Earth is an imminent possibility.
After a strange, spectacular and faintly amusing sequence of images – birds tumbling down behind Dunst’s sullen face, a collapsing horse, a recreation of Millais’ painting, Ophelia – Melancholia opens on what should be the happiest day of Justine’s life.
Having just married, Justine and new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) head for a lavish reception at a huge, baroque mansion belonging to her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her brother-in-law, the unfeasibly wealthy amateur astronomer, John (Kiefer Sutherland).
Among the guests waiting in the luxurious dining room are Justine’s shambling father Dexter (John Hurt), her embittered mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), and her ruthless advertising agency boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård). As the requisite speeches are made and the wine flows, cracks soon begin to appear; barbed comments are made, and Justine’s initial happiness gradually gives way to creeping melancholy.
Von Trier’s assembled a quite glorious cast of actors here, and while their roles are small, they each get a brief moment to shine; look out for the great Udo Kier as a petulant wedding planner, John Hurt’s delicious little spoon robbery scene, and a line from Stellan Skarsgård that will have public relations people everywhere chortling good-naturedly or bristling with irritation.
Given Von Trier’s reputation as a heavyweight filmmaker, it’s surprising just how funny Melancholia often is. There are little rays of humour here and there that punctuate this otherwise black film like pinpoints of light. Kiefer Sutherland’s a rather left-field choice to play an astronomy-obsessed millionaire, but he’s grouchily charismatic as a husband who quietly resents his sister-in-law, and refuses to empathise with her crippling depressive states.
Ultimately, though, Melancholia is an unvarnished, unsentimental look at the nature of depression, and Kirsten Dunst emotionally and physically lays herself bare in an immaculate performance. If anyone deserves some best actress nods during the next awards season, it’s her. And while we’re at it, Charlotte Gainsbourg deserves a supporting actress gong for yet another humane, honest performance.
Shortly after the wedding reception shudders to its disastrous climax, and various emotionally wounded guests shuffle off into the night, the film leaves us alone with Justine and Claire. And in this next chapter, which begins with Justine at the absolute nadir of her despair, we learn what was hinted at during the film’s surreal opening sequence: that a blue planet from beyond our Sun – aptly dubbed Melancholia – appears to be heading directly towards Earth.
As the planet draws ever nearer, the mood among the main players gradually shifts; John, once confident and gleeful in his scientific fascination, grows fractious and irritable; Claire, once the pillar of support for Justine, becomes lachrymose and confused. In this changing climate, it’s Justine who finds inner strength.
Von Trier states his message plainly: only those who’ve lived with depression can truly know how profoundly limiting and oppressive it is. To everyone else, it’s merely a black cloud that will pass, a funny turn that will fade in time. Only with the arrival of the blue planet can the characters around Justine learn the true nature of melancholy, and all the horrible, selfish and self-destructive ways it manifests itself.
Some critics have scoffed at Melancholia’s strange and sometimes obvious symbolism, with The Guardian unfairly, in my view, dismissing it as “tiresome and facetious”. Although it’s true that Melancholia’s tone and duration will test the patience of some, this shouldn’t overshadow what Von Trier has achieved.
As writer and director, he’s created a quite lovely collection of characters, and sealed them up in an engaging psychodrama that appears to take place on its own island: society’s broader reaction to its impending doom is never even touched upon, and the narrative unfolds in a vacuum, sealed off from wider concerns. (It’s even implied, in more than one scene, that an invisible barrier prevents the characters from leaving their luxurious prison.)
Melancholia is an overlong yet bravely individual piece of filmmaking, and yet another recent example of sci-fi used as a method of interrogating a specific subject matter. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was an examination of class and relationships set against a Mexico devastated by creatures from outer space, and Mike Cahill’s debut, Another Earth, is a meditation on guilt and forgiveness.
By the same token, Melancholia uses an apocalyptic theme to explore the sensations of despair, acceptance, and impending disaster. In the process, Von Trier’s created a provocative, engaging, grand opera, one that builds to a deafening and moving crescendo.