'Melancholia' is a mesmerizing, uneven descent into the human psyche in the face of certain doom
Melancholia Magnolia Pictures
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Cameron Spurr, Alexander
Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt
Rated R / 2 hours, 16 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
The sense of dread in Melancholia almost goes without saying. This is, after all, a movie about
the end of existence. No, what struck me wasn't the dread, but the sense of near-total insularity.
If it feels as though the world in Melancholia is very small, that is no accident. The film takes
place in a single location - a wealthy estate complete with stables and a nine-hole golf course -
and for all intents and purposes, it might as well be the entire world. It is a gnarled web of
narcissism, depression, hostility, fear and detachment from which there seems to be no real
escape, what with the giant planet hurtling toward Earth and all.
Writer/director Lars von Trier makes no secret of his intentions, and offers his characters little
chance at any respite.
The outside world is almost entirely disregarded. In fact, its mere presence is made out to be a
threat in and of itself (a character warns his wife not to go on the Internet to read up on the latest
speculation regarding the titular planet). No, it's this estate, right here - this is where the world
will end. Nowhere else matters.
The key characters - the clinically depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in a performance that
earned her the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival), her sister Claire (Charlotte
Gainsbourg), Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) - are
all alone. Other characters exit the film and never return. When they leave the wedding reception
that takes up most of the first half of the film, it's as if they no longer exist. The end has come.
Only Justine will accept that fact. Because ... well, because
she accepted it long before Melancholia ever appeared. Her depression - reported to be inspired
by von Trier's own bout with the disease - has, at the very least, prepared her for this. She has
long since resigned herself to the realization that they (we) are all alone in the universe. Total
annihilation of the planet isn't going to change a thing.
I suspect the insular feeling that pervades Melancholia reflects the sense of isolation - the
aloneness - felt by someone, like Justine, who suffers from depression. Here, the apocalyptic
threat is presented as an internal - or internalized - struggle, rather than a global spectacle.
Chronicling the end of days as a portrait of personal crisis brings out a level of despair not often
found in even the darkest apocalyptic dramas. (And let's face it - these days, we get more than
our fair share of the subject.)
Von Trier's approach to the material is peculiar, for better and for worse. He opens with a series
of extraordinary tableaus (set to the prelude from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde) that abstractly
illustrate the film's key moments and motifs. From there he cuts to the one and only scene of
genuine warmth between Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). A
seemingly contented and playful couple, they laugh mischievously as their limousine gets stuck
on a sharp turn on the absurdly long gravel path up to the estate, where dozens of guests await
The two are eventually forced to set out on foot, and finally make their way to their own
reception two hours late. From there, we witness - with a sort of gradual horror - their
relationship dissolve completely in one night. And that's not to mention Justine's vicious and
narcissistic mother (Charlotte Rampling), her charming, drunken father (John Hurt), and of
course John, who arranged and paid for the entire celebration (and makes a point of emphasizing
that fact), only to see it go up in a rather disastrous cloud of smoke.
Poor John - he's already endured one embarrassment, and he doesn't even know about his
impending doom. Nah, he's convinced Melancholia is going to fly right past. In fact, he can't
wait for it. It's going to be beautiful, he insists. (And indeed, the images of the planets colliding
- both at the beginning of the film and the end - are just that.)
I'm not sure how to feel about von Trier's deliberately contrasting styles - the controlled,
painterly compositions of the extended opening sequence, and the freestyle, handheld
filmmaking that awkwardly follows. The opening almost plays like a trailer for the actual movie
- a trailer that is, in many respects, more interesting than the movie itself.
Yet even as it fails to recapture the majesty of its prologue, Melancholia fascinates - in fits and
starts, anyway - as it plunges into its characters' increasingly hopeless state of affairs. Most
apocalyptic films use a group of people as a microcosm of some sort, and this is no exception.
But rarely has it felt so concise - and so final.