Danish director Lars von Trier is not known for happy movies (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) and with Melancholia he keeps true to form. The title clues you in to the mood of the film centered on two sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), which is told in two chapters. The first is Justine’s story – the saga of her wedding reception at her sister’s mansion, in which she has a slow and painful meltdown, revealing herself to be a deeply disturbed, depressed woman, incapable of being in any relationship, much less married. The second part belongs to Claire. It concerns her growing terror that a planet called Melancholia that has been hiding behind the sun is soon going to crash into the earth.
Perhaps what the sisters have in common is that they see life on earth now as particularly hopeless. Justine’s melancholy is internal. Claire’s is from above. The opening sequence lets the audience in on the truth, that the mysterious blue planet that is hurtling towards the earth will indeed be our end, but until the moment it happens, there is always the faint hope that it will, as Claire’s astronomer husband John (Keifer Sutherland) keeps insisting, pass us by. It is a strange movie in that this planet that spells our doom is simply a given, but there is nothing else to hint at science fiction. There is no government agency scrambling to find a way to save the earth. In fact, the entire film takes place on an isolated estate somewhere on some coast – a mansion, stables, and, John’s pride and joy, an 18-hole golf course.
The film opens with a very arty sequence (think Tree of Life) depicting the sisters in strange tableaux around the estate, some is such extreme slow motion as to be nearly still, culminating with a planet crashing into earth. This is none too subtle foreshadowing of the strange and strained tale that is to come. There is a sense from the beginning that nothing quite fits here. When we meet Justine, she and her new husband are in the back of a stretch limo, which cannot navigate a tight turn and despite trying every conceivable approach, it is just stuck. She seems happy and fun, but it becomes clear at the reception that she is in desperate need of emotional aid and despite pleas to both her parents, she gets less than nothing. Claire seems mostly concerned with having the affair run on time, though it is obvious that she is the only person who understands what is happening with Justine and will take care of her. In the Claire chapter, a nearly catatonic Justine returns to stay at the mansion and is nursed back to mental health, just in time to help über-anxious Claire cope with the end of the world.
Melancholia is definitely not a mainstream film. But there is a lot to like about it, including wonderful acting from both lead actresses. So far, Kirsten Dunst has gotten a lot of kudos (Best Actress at Cannes), but I think Charlotte Gainsbourg deserves a few nods, as well. And the supporting cast is excellent. I particularly liked seeing Keifer in a non-Jack Bauer role for a change. Visually this film is stunning! The opening sequence is mesmerizing and who’d have thought a golf course could become such a magical landscape? But at the end of the day, it is a very depressing film. You need to be in the mood for an Art Film, because ultimately Melancholia is all about futility, though neatly wrapped in a gorgeously shot and beautifully acted package.