Film Review: Melancholia

A mysterious planet menaces Earth while a bride fights depression in this gorgeous, clever and eventually laughable misanthropic tease from Lars von Trier.

Music from the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde thunders out of the speakers at the startling prelude to Lars von Trier’s latest attempted outrage. He weaves a glimmering dreamscape of apocalypse as the music ripples and yearns. Lightning flickers from a woman’s fingers, a bride running in a forest is ensnared by dark vines, a woman carrying a child screams in silent slow-motion as her feet sink into quicksand-like grass and at the climax of it all, a planet smashes into Earth like a hammer of the gods. It’s a doomed marriage, writ large.

Cut to a catastrophe of a different kind: a long stretch limousine trying to negotiate a hairpin turn while carrying a bride- and groom-to-be, Justine and Michael, to the grand castle where they will be wed. Inside, the beautiful couple (Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård) giggle at the ridiculousness of it all. Once they finally arrive, Justine’s sister Claire (a very severe Charlotte Gainsbourg) and husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) seem preposterously bent out of shape at their tardiness. Inside, amidst all the elegant place settings, there is a palpable tension, as though nobody except Justine and Michael actually wants to be there. Then Justine’s eyes start to drift, Dunst drawing with skillful minimalism inside her character as depression and anxiety begin to overtake her.

In this first, quite enjoyable part of the film, von Trier plays well at being a filmmaker who is interested in people. There is a low current of anxious social comedy running through the wedding as he dismantles one element after another. First the wedding planner (Udo Kier) becomes despondent at how the schedule is thrown off, then Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling, a steely and vicious Cassandra) stands up to denounce this marriage and even the very idea of marriage. The sensation is that of a grand but poorly planned circus where everybody in attendance is peeling away because they have noticed the big top is about to come down, having been toppled by one very self-destructive star performer.

The backdrop to the first act’s inexorable familial melodrama is the rapidly approaching rogue planet of Melancholia, explained as having somehow stayed hidden behind the sun throughout recorded history until now. Justine and Claire’s celestial interlocutor is the curious astronomy enthusiast John, a filthy-rich character who lives in a castle surrounded by an 18-hole golf course and a fairytale forest (which actually looks akin to the dark, wet landscape which drove the characters in Antichrist mad) and comically begrudges every penny spent; Sutherland plays him as a grumpy sitcom dad on the verge of being unhinged.
When von Trier leaves behind the marital comedy of the first act for the dreary nothingness of his second act, the light goes out of the film. This isn’t just because Justine’s depressive state turns into near-catatonia, or because the first act’s crowd of performers (including Stellan Skarsgård and John Hurt in sharp roles) leaves Justine to mope around the castle with Claire, her son, and John. What sucks the life out of von Trier’s film is first the dreary pacing and rote dialogue and second the suspicion that the film isn’t just interested in Justine’s depression, it’s impressed by it.

Amid this fabulist setting, Claire and John are both presented as simple- and small-minded control freaks. Meanwhile, Justine makes doom-laden pronouncements and rapturously communes in the nude with the approaching death planet like some adolescent’s idea of an avatar of truth. She’s delirious with excitement at the impending devastation, as is von Trier, whose initially grand-seeming Wagnerian experiment in doomed love sputters and grinds along to a preordained and giggle-worthy conclusion. It’s a trite apocalypse.