Director: Lars von Trier
Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland
Plot: As the planet Melancholia heads towards a crash-course with Earth, a wedding reception exposes family tensions.
In cinematic terms, when Earth is faced with a potentially fatal collision with a fast-moving extraterrestrial body, we send either Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall into space with a drill to sort out the problem. In 1998, America saved the world not once but twice in Armageddon and Deep Impact, in the most unsubtle of ways. Fast forward thirteen years later and Lars von Trier’s concept of our planet’s end of days is firmly at the other extreme. Melancholia is a very downbeat affair which involves no spacecraft or Aerosmith – this is an idea borne out of a depressive episode which he experienced, where calm is felt during stressful situations.
Despite the film’s title, the introduction of the lead characters (following a short, scenic celestial tour and a bizarre slow-motion sequence) of Melancholia is anything but. Newly married couple Justine (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are late for their wedding reception due to the fact that their limo driver has trouble (to much hilarity) negotiating his way there. Unfortunately their tardiness doesn’t go down well with Justine’s sister Claire (Gainsbourg) or her brother-in-law John (Sutherland) who have spent a lot of money on the party at their mansion. Family relationships are further strained by the presence of the sisters’ divorced parents Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), who insist on sniping at each other throughout the speeches. As the celebrations continue in full swing, we notice that Justine’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic – she sneaks off on her own for a nap and later has a bath just before the cake-cutting duty commences.
Justine’s boss Michael (Stellan Skarsgård) keeps pestering her to write advertising copy, which she finds irritating and is driven to the end of her tether, effectively raping a guest on the golf course. All of these conflicts start to send Justine over the edge and she becomes severely depressed to the point that guests start leaving early and Michael feels he can’t manage his new wife and leaves her. Meanwhile in the sky, a massive telluric planet named Melancholia is approaching Earth but has been predicted to pass by and carry its journey onwards, out of our solar system. Justine notices that certain stars in the sky have ‘disappeared’ but is reassured by John, an amateur astronomer, that this is normal as the planet eclipses other stars. As the fall-out from the wedding reception manifests itself in Justine’s demeanour, Claire starts to worry if Melancholia will actually hit the Earth, contrary to the scientists’ predictions.
There will be inevitable comparisons drawn between Melancholia and Terence Malick’s Tree of Life due to their dual space/earth subplots, although it makes much more sense here as the inter-stellar voyage doesn’t interrupt the terrestrial goings-on. Considering the film’s title, introduction and tone, you would think that pretension would seep in far too often. There is surprisingly little obscurity to speak of – once the events at the wedding party begin to unfold and Justine’s psyche begins to unravel, the plot is straightforward enough to follow. The fraught relationship between the sisters played by Dunst and Gainsbourg takes up most of the screen time and the two actresses do a terrific job, despite no-one seeming to question why Justine has an American accent in an English family.
Melancholia has an all-star supporting cast who play their characters beautifully. Veterans Hurt, Rampling and Stellan Skarsgård interact extremely well with their younger counterparts including Alexander Skarsgård and Sutherland to create very convincing dynamics, drawing you into their individual stories. As soundtracks go, we must assume that it is one of the shortest ever, consisting of merely one classical piece. Using the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Trist and Isolde, not just in the opening sequences but throughout the film, at first feels very apt but becomes tired after a while. Perhaps it would have been wiser for von Trier to alternate the music a little, instead of bombarding us with Wagner every other scene. However, the music links in well as the planet looms large and passes by in some of the most gorgeous cinematography ever conceived.
Melancholia will not be to everyone’s taste, certainly among those who will find the dark mood a little too much. But Lars von Trier has given us a very profound, original and thought-provoking film which may in time be viewed as a masterpiece, but not just yet.