Directed by Lars Von Trier
Released November 11, 2011
“Melancholia” is a unique film in many ways. Coming from the mind of noted director Lars Von Trier, it’s no surprise. The film is divided around the halfway mark into two explicitly separate parts, but even before the narrative begins, the entire story is told through a mesmerizing outer space view of a planet, later revealed to be called Melancholia, eclipsing and ultimately destroying Earth. That forthcoming event hangs over the film like a shadow, barely present in its first half and nearly omnipresent in its second. Both parts follow what might otherwise be ordinary life cycle events, yet everything here is anything but ordinary. It may not be entirely exciting, comprehensible, or normative, but it certainly is magnificently hypnotic and intensely captivating.
In the first part, titled “Justine,” one sister (Kirsten Dunst) arrives nearly two hours late for her wedding party with her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at the large estate of her sister’s husband, angering both her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). What ensues is one of the most bizarre, disconnected post-wedding festivities ever conceived, which finds new bride Justine wandering off multiple times, drawing herself a bath and having sex with stranger in the middle of a golf course, among other things. Von Trier enlists several esteemed heavy hitters to portray the parents of the couple, eliciting marvelously memorable speeches and toasts from Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard, and John Hurt. It’s an experience comparable to, but infinitely more detached and never-ending than, the wedding in “Rachel Getting Married,” though in this case even the happy couple isn’t happy.
Once all the wedding celebrations are over, the film retreats into a sort of solitude, reframing its story through a new protagonist in its second segment, titled “Claire.” The theme of apocalyptic doom returns as Claire nervously anticipates and fears the approach of Melancholia while John reassures her that it won’t hit the Earth. Kiefer Sutherland delivers a particularly strong performance, making John’s scientific curiosity fully believable and reassuring. When certain doom arrives, the look on John’s face is more powerful than any expression Claire gives, and Gainsbourg delivers an exceptional turn as well. Justine remains firmly apart from the world, lost in her own mind and not eager to make any connections, and Dunst has the perfect demeanor to play the part. The gloomy music reminds of the greater threat, and the sweeping cinematography offers a beautiful picture of these characters and their actions. “Melancholia” is an intimate, mesmerizing, agonizing, and depressing experience all at once, difficult to process but just as difficult to forget.