In a nutshell: Better than you might think
Popcorn rating: 3.5/5
Melancholia. In which Lars von Trier shows us the end of the world as a metaphor for depression. No wait, come back, it’s really a lot better than that sounds. Beginning with the end (or THE END rather), the film opens with a series of stunning slow motion tableaux, soundtracked by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, culminating in the earth exploding on impact with an enormous blue planet. Beautifully photographed by Manuel Alberto Claro, these scenes are simply breathtaking.
However, once introduced to our cast as they meet their inevitable end, the film then shifts gear and moves into its first part, entitled Justine, after Kirsten Dunst’s character. Justine is a bride to be on her wedding day, the reception being held at her brother-in-law’s opulent country hotel, in its sprawling grounds. This all appears to be happening prior to widespread knowledge about the earth’s imminent demise. Von Trier develops this into a masterful ensemble piece, where Justine’s burgeoning depression is met with incomprehension from her pragmatic sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and the remaining guests, including the groom. Ultimately Justine’s marriage is destined to end as almost as soon as it has begun and von Trier unflinchingly shows her disintegration in the face of demands she’s simply unequipped to meet.
In Claire, the film’s second half, the arrival of the blue planet, named Melancholia, is imminent and the family – Claire, her husband, her son and Justine – are marooned at the country estate, awaiting their fate. Here we see Claire’s pragmatism tested, and broken, by her fear and helplessness in the face of cosmic events. Justine, however, now seems to have found a kind of equilibrium and is fully accepting, if not welcoming, of the end of the world. The feeling von Trier creates is one of claustrophic intimacy set against the beautiful landscape of the setting and the terrible inevitability of total destruction.
Melancholia is not an easy film, but that’s hardly a surprise. Von Trier doesn’t quite put his characters through the wringer here like he did in Antichrist – there are no mutilated genitals to contemplate – but he does successfully capture a sense of hopelessness, and his big metaphor of a large blue planet inexorably obliterating life as we know it, works in spite of its obviousness.
Reviewer: Tom Ridge