It begins, and ends, with the end of the world. The latest from writer/director Lars von Trier is a bleak examination at the lives of two sisters in the days before the arrival of a mysterious planet on a collision course with the Earth.
We begin with Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) who are late to their own wedding reception. At first this cute occurrence of a limbo driver not being able to navigate the narrow drive to where the event is held seems nothing more than a mildly diverting challenge for the new couple to navigate. We soon learn, however, that the newlyweds have all kinds of problems they will struggle through on this night.
Over the course of the evening Justine, already stressed by the wedding, is pressured by her husband sister to act normal, her boss Stellan Skarsgård) wants a slogan for a new campaign, her sister’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland) wants her gratitude for the gala he’s paid for, and her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is complaining constantly at the absurdity of marriage.
For any normal person this might cause problems, but the more time we spend with Justine it’s clear she’s also suffering from a form of mental illness. Needless to say, the wedding night doesn’t go off completely as planned. One small disaster leads to another which causes John (Sutherland) to ask his wife if all the women in her family are crazy.
The movie’s second story centers around Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Where Justine is the wild and impetuous sister, Justine is controlling, overly-attentive, and quick to frighten. She only wants her sister, her husband, and son (Cameron Spurr) to be happy and becomes increasingly frustrated on occasions where she isn’t able to make this happen.
Both Claire and John (Sutherland) become obsessed with the approaching planet which astronomers have named Melancholia. John, with a scientific outlook, wants to watch and appreciate the once in a lifetime event, refusing to admit anything could go wrong with the planet’s close pass by. Claire, on the other hand, becomes increasingly worried that Melancholia may well spell the end of everything.
The genesis of this character study built inside a disaster film was Trier learning about depression through his own therapy. The idea that those suffering from the condition are more likely to accept events and remain calm in stressful situations is central to the Claire/Justine relationship. As the planet looms larger on the horizon it’s Justine, despite her depression and cynical outlook of life, and not Claire, who appears to be the more stable of the two sisters.
Although the role of Justine was originally written with Penélope Cruz in mind, Dunst proves more than capable. For those whose only exposure to Dunst has been in her lighter roles in films such as Bring It On, Wimbledon, and Elizabethtown, you’re in for quite a pleasant surprise. Gainsbourg is a perfect compliment as the film centers around sisters who both love and hate each other for the roles they are forced to play in each other’s lives.
The film is long, depressing, and more than a little self-absorbed as Trier uses the project to work on his own inner neurosis (much of Justine’s personality is based on Trier himself). However, to dismiss it solely as such would be a mistake.
Despite its cynical look at how characters behave to each other on this tiny blue ball we call home, Trier succeeds in providing a beautiful, moving film that is a perfect realization of the filmmaker’s view of the world. Operatic in scope, Melancholia is a type of disaster movie where the end of the world isn’t something to be diverted at the eleventh-hour, but acknowledged, feared, and ultimately embraced.