It’s fair to say that nobody makes films like Lars von Trier. Love or hate the man, nobody can deny that his films are completely unique and, at the very least, worthwhile. They all say something. Melancholia is a film that begins with the end of the world – that is not a spoiler, for the very first scenes of this mammoth film are those of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in various states of being as the apocalypse occurs. Later it becomes clear that these images are less about realistically showing what actually happens to Justine and Claire in the film, but more about their mental states and the differences inherent in their individual personalities.
Broadly speaking, Melancholia is about the approach of a rogue planet into the Earth’s trajectory, and the possible ramifications of this for a wealthy but unhappy family, who, at the beginning of the film, are gathered for Justine’s wedding to her fiancé Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). Other stars such as Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland and von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård fill out the cast in these scenes. After this first part finishes, the second part comes to focus more closely on just four characters – Justine, Claire, Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and Claire and John’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr).
The film’s title ought to hint at the theme of the film, and it explores this in a way that is surprising and unexpected. Justine clearly suffers from extreme depression, and is sluggish and unresponsive through much of her own wedding reception. Claire, on the other hand, suffers with extreme anxiety and, while more cheerful than Justine at the wedding, becomes more and more emotionally drained as the film wears on. With this in mind, Melancholia seems to be about the differences between depression and anxiety and how these differences manifest themselves in extreme situations. A depressive looks at Melancholia, the rogue planet that could represent any bump in the road that life may bring, and sees nothing different than what they see every day. They expect the worst, so they accept it. The anxious look at Melancholia and see the end of all existence, all life, and panic, bargain, try to escape and futilely fight against it. Acceptance never comes.
By revealing the end of the story at the beginning of the film, von Trier gets the sci-fi business out of the way. These scenes are extremely beautiful; scenes of dreamlike slow-motion and planets colliding over a massive Wagnerian score, reminiscent of scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Tree of Life. Likewise, the end of the movie brings the end of the world and renders it with such beauty and overwhelming emotion that one can’t help but be affected by it. Individual images stay in the mind for days afterwards; Justine walking on the golf course as the two moons look down on her, and the final images of the planet’s destruction. Incredible.
Kirsten Dunst’s performance is the best of her career, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is impressive as ever. Kiefer Sutherland is the wild-card and possibly miscast as the astronomy nerd John but works well within the cast. Little Cameron Spurr is surprisingly affecting in his role as Leo, who manages to convey the blank emotion one feels in the face of overwhelming odds without seeming false nor cloying. Overall, the film is a sensation, and Lars von Trier’s most mainstream work to date. It’s beautifully shot, tragically affecting, and with the most uplifting look at the entire destruction of life on Earth that there has yet been. It’s tagline says it all – ‘A Beautiful Movie About the End of the World’.
Best line: Justine explaining to Jack about the ‘Nothing’ tagline.