After an enigmatic prologue, Justine and her groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive hours late for the wedding reception. Their white limo gets stuck on the trail leading to the secluded estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland).
The well-to-do murmur as the couple arrives. Servants bustle. A wedding planner (Udo Kier) frets. Petulant guests fight private little wars. Upstairs, a little boy sleeps.
Wedding day blues
Depression sinks Justine as the night drags on. All is not well and she knows it. The wedding seems little more than an exercise. She struggles with the niceties. What’s the point?
Claire and John want Justine to be happy. Her illness becomes rude, an inconvenience. “Sometimes I hate you so much,” Claire tells her.
Uncertain new beginning
Assembling under the night sky, the merrymakers launch hot air balloons scrawled with best wishes and messages of love.
Justine lashes out, confronting her man-hating mother (Charlotte Rampling) and pound-of-flesh boss (Stellan Skarsgard). A co-worker (Brady Corbet) assails her.
Justine tries to shield her unsteady father (John Hurt) from her mother. When Michael mentions having a family someday, she balks.
Endings, beginnings haunt us
Fleeing her wedding bed, Justine rides off on a golf cart, gown trailing. Alone she finds peace, watching the stars.
Melancholia joins a flurry of “end times” films. The end of civilization as we know it seems etched in our collective unconscious.
Change is in the air. The Occupy Wall Street movement and increasing awareness about economic and environmental issues are dawning.
von Trier not hopeful
While The Tree of Life is hopeful and redemptive, Melancholia focuses on approaching devastation. Terrence Malick sees humanity as a grand experiment, a wondrous part of the universe. Von Trier examines our shortcomings and how we face death.
You might view von Trier as a cynic. We’re simply not worth redeeming, he suggests. Let’s start over.
This is a masterful interpretation of the writer-director’s own battle with depression. The illness takes on universal significance.
Dunst and Rampling bold, unapologetic
Dunst boldly conveys the female archetype. In one of Melancholia’s most striking moments, she skinny dips in the night, bathed in the blue light of the looming planet. In a black pastoral scene, the bride runs in slow motion. Brown goo pulls at her hem, trapping her.
Humanity is plagued not by locusts, but by mental illness. Claire suffers bouts of anxiety. She too feels death approaching. Just in case, she keeps a bottle of pills locked away in a drawer.
Claire nurtures her son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Justine dotes on her nephew too. Only with the boy does she show any real warmth.
John and Leo play astronomer
If Dunst portrays the Female, then Sutherland plays the Male. John is the rock of the family, the sensible breadwinner. Yet by the end of the film, his actions take a bizarre turn.
The planet Melancholia will be a “fly-by,” John declares. That’s what the scientists say. Childlike, he tracks the spectacle by telescope. Leo shares his fascination.
Nature takes control
Horses stir in the stables. Justine beats her horse Constantine when he stops moving. He is trying to tell her something. Finally she stops and looks skyward.
Melancholia unfolds like a dirge to the strains of Wagner. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro achieves a visual hypnosis that is exhilarating. Cosmos, eros and anguish hum.
The bride is considered a symbol of life and fertility. Justine longs for the relief of death.
Dunst lauded at Cannes
Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this role. Melancholia is winning numerous prizes, including Best Film at the European Film Awards.
You can fear death. You can try to escape it. You can die a hero, returning home. (5 out of 5 stars)
Melancholia 2011 / R / 2 hours, 15 min
Cast Overview: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesper Christensen, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Udo Kier, Brady Corbet
Director: Lars von Trier
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi