Arriving in the opening frames, the apocalypse has never looked better.
Ever the contrarian, director Lars von Trier imagines that the world ends neither with a bang nor a whimper. We will not blow up, nor will we merely fade away. Instead, to Wagner’s strains of doomed romance, a cerulean planet emerges from its hiding place behind the sun to set sail toward us.
Ten times our size, it is atmospherically compelling and surreal in its gravitational pull, contorting life here like a Salvador Dali canvas. The fateful moment isn’t a fiery collision but a vast enveloping, a passive surrender as our small cell gets engulfed in its large host. The planet, like the film, is called Melancholia, a not-so-subtle hint that von Trier has put an allegorical spin on our demise: Apparently, for earthlings, Armageddon is nothing more or less than a terminal case of the blues.
So concludes the prelude, a short beginning that is truly the end, and then Part One brings us back to reality with a thud. There, we meet Justine (Kirsten Dunst), pale and loitering on her wedding night and definitely not a happy camper.
The party setting is palatial, a stone mansion with its own verdant golf course, all owned by Justine’s brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A melancholic herself, the bride is striving to put a smiling face on convention, trying to buy into the idea of a normal existence with her normally handsome groom. But the effort is defeating her – she too is a solitary planet succumbing to the irresistible pull of depression.
Her personal apocalypse unfolds in this extended sequence as a kind of heightened realism, and the film’s first half seems like an inflated version of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration – a family ritual undercut by dysfunction and fraught with menace. The roots of Justine’s melancholy are loosely traced to her parents – mother a hardened cynic, father a demented ruin. Amid these unravelling festivities, John the money-bags stands as a familiar trope in von Trier’s pessimistic canon: the rational man limited in imagination but firm in his no-nonsense pragmatism.
“Your family is nuts,” he bellows to his wife, and when Justine escapes the marriage feast to hide in the bathtub, or to seduce some hapless youth out on the fairway, it’s hard not to agree with him.
So parts of this emotional train wreck ring fascinatingly true – we’ve all attended weddings where the ritualistic bliss feels painfully false. And Dunst’s bipolar performance oscillates credibly between puffy-eyed mania and listless malaise. At other times, though, von Trier himself appears manic, pushing the dysfunction button with a vigour that seems wildly disproportionate, like a clumsy comic stumbling over a sick joke (in retrospect, his now-infamous attempt at humour at that Cannes press conference seems entirely in keeping with this picture).
Of course, the wedding night ends badly, which brings us to the grand finis of Part Two, where individual melancholy gives way to the approaching Melancholia – we’re all in for it. Now catatonically depressed, Justine is being cared for by Claire, the healthy sister with much to live for. She loves her young son and enjoys the many perks of affluence. Alas, in the night sky, two moons are on the rise and, by day, the giant blue menace is clearly visible – initially through a telescope but soon enough with the naked eye.
Well, the allegory isn’t hard to read. Armed with his scientific calculations, John the rationalist believes that the planet poses no threat: “Melancholia will pass us by.” For her part, Justine is revitalized by the prospect of imminent doom. Longing for her own death, she takes a certain comfort in collective slaughter. But that’s just a lower form of logic, whose misery-loves-company deduction is trite. Claire alone is frightened and, thanks to her role as the embodied champion of earthly delights, the picture generates a little suspense.
But only a little, partly because the prelude has tipped the outcome, but mainly because von Trier has tipped his sympathies. That’s why, compared to the jaggedly dark style of his earlier work, this film, this exercise in ultimate finality, looks polished and positively bright. Like Justine, he has perversely (contrarily) given the downbeat content an upbeat shine. Occasionally, the resulting dissonance gets under our skin in unnerving ways, but often it plays like a heady exercise in bring-it-on bravado, a sort of poetic justice.
All that’s deliberate, but the lingering question is not: Is Melancholia a sly depiction of the end we deserve, or simply a lovely load of bombast? Be prepared to choose one or the other; unless there’s an extra moon in tonight’s sky, it can’t be both.
- Directed and written by Lars von Trier
- Starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg
- Classification: PG