Lars Van Trier, the Danish film director, doesn’t make happy movies. He makes films that are masterful works of art, but are never-the-less soaked in melancholy and overtures of gloom. His favorite subjects are women under various forms of physical or mental abuse who are facing the end of their definition of bliss or happiness. With that pedigree, I guess that makes Van Trier the perfect candidate to write and direct film about the end of the world.
By telling you that the world ends, I’m not giving anything away, the earth actually does come to an end in the first six minutes of the movie. The rest of the film tells the story of the eminent lead-in to that tragedy, opening with a series of seemingly disconnected operatic scenes that are shot in slow-motion and set to the music of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. These scenes climax with a shot of a rogue planet, called Melancholia, smashing the earth (I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but according the Van Trier’s special effects people, when the earth does collide with another planet, it looks like east Africa is going to go first, sorry Africa!). At first, the opening shots don’t seem to have anything to do with each other, but only gradually do we come to understand what they actually mean.
The main body of the film is told in two parts. The first is called “Justine” and focuses on a beautiful young bride (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding day. This should be the happiest day of her life but circumstances in her heart and soul, and the overwrought selfish drama brought on by family and co-workers are turning this day into a wading pool of misery. Lost in a world of her own, Justine seems to want to be anywhere but where she is. The only person at the wedding who doesn’t seem self-involved is Justine’s happy new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) who seems like a good man, always smiling and always attempting to comfort her. The rest of the family is not so giving, Justine’s father and mother (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) have split long ago and seem angry with one another even during the toast. Her mother in particular seems to be self-centered and hateful, always boiling, always off to the side with her arms folded. Her new brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), an astronomer, and her sister Claire seems at odds with Justine all through the proceedings. They may have something to do with Justine’s mood. Something inside of her won’t let her enjoy this day and she keeps struggling to get away.
There is nothing about this wedding that looks familiar to us. No one seems to want to be ingratiating to the event itself, they all seem to have some other agenda and that may be fueling Justine’s depression. As the day goes on, she becomes sadder and sadder and even the prospect of making love to her new husband doesn’t seem to fit. Something in her mind is keeping her at a distance. Periodically, she looks up to the heavens, to an odd-looking star in the evening sky. At first, it seems a little too bright. Later it disappears. We understand it from the opening scenes, and it is the catalyst for the film’s second act.
The second part, called “Claire”, takes place long after that disastrous wedding reception and deals with the planet Melancholia, which is initially only suppose to pass by earth, but as time goes on, it becomes clear that the two planets are going to collide. This chapter of the film focuses on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is more clear-headed and therefore less able to deal emotionally with the coming calamity. Justine, meanwhile, has slipped into a state of weary depression and therefore seems more prepared for what is to come. This second story is more direct, dealing squarely with four characters (Justine, Claire, John and their son Leo) and the coming collision. This half essentially tells us everything we need to know and even ties up some questions that we had at the end of the first half.
The central joy of Melancholia is the performance by Kirsten Dunst, who has done great work before, but here does something I haven’t seen from her. The performance doesn’t come out through words, but in the manner in which she is able to hold the moment just with her eyes. There is a fragile spirit within her that is long broken and forgotten and, in the first half of the film; she fails to hide that sadness behind a veil of false happiness and joy. She remains silent but her face reveals an inner turmoil that is screaming to be heard. She does more with this quiet performance than most actors can with a raised voice. She has moments in the film when she is willing to reveal herself body and soul, but it never feels trashy or tawdry. She reveals Justine as a woman who has long since banished any joy or false front. It is an extraordinary performance.
Melancholia is, admittedly, not a film for everyone. This is an art-house film from one end to the other. It is often painfully slow, and that happens only because the film takes time to build its characters. This a film that asks for your patience, as all of Von Trier’s work does. It is one of the most beautiful films to behold. The interiors during the wedding reception are lit in such a way that they convey the formality but also the claustrophobia taking place in Justine’s soul. The later scenes, shot mostly outdoors are lit with grey and blue, conveying the darkness that is about to consume the world. When the world is consumed, it doesn’t come out of the Roland Emmerich special effects factory, with crashing buildings and hysterical masses. The end focuses squarely on two characters that we have come to know, their personalities and their appropriate response to the situation given what we know about them. This is a thinking person’s apocalypse.