The film, after a prologue that is sort of a visual poem that foreshadows events that will take place later (and will chase impatient viewers out of the theater), is two films in one. The first half is a wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), held at the castle-like home (exteriors were shot at an actual castle in Sweden) of her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). The sequence begins with the couple’s stretch limo trying to navigate the winding, one-lane road to the castle, a wonderful metaphor for marriage, and this makes them two hours later to their own reception.
The reception plays out like a black comedy. Dunst’s parents are the twinkly John Hurt and the sour Charlotte Rampling, who openly feud during the toasts–Rampling announces she doesn’t believe in marriage, and didn’t attend the church service. Dunst’s boss, the overbearing Stellan Skarsgard, is also Michael’s best man. She’s an advertising copywriter, and he pesters her for a tagline throughout the party, even assigning a lackey (Brady Corbet) to follow her around to get it. She ends up screwing Corbet in a sand trap of the estate’s 18-hole golf course.
All during the party Dunst suffers from depression, or, as it used to be called before the advent of modern psychology, melancholia. It was here that I had to stop listening to my “wait, but” voice, which grew increasing louder during the second, astronomical half of the film. There is no mention of Dunst being on any medication, and the characters are pretty rough on her when she has episodes, Sutherland going so far as to remind that he is spending a vast amount of money on the affair, so she should cheer the fuck up. Needless to say, the evening does not end well.
The second half of the film is more focused on Gainsbourg, and the sisters invert roles. A rogue planet, called Melancholia, is on a close path to Earth. Sutherland, an amateur astronomer, is excited about seeing the event, and assures Gainsbourg that there is no danger, but Gainsbourg goes online and sees reports that the planet has a slingshot orbit that will indeed cause it and Earth to collide.
Astrophysicists will no doubt roll their eyes at this–first of all, heavenly bodies are named after mythological figures, not mood disorders. Sutherland tells Gainsbourg that with “calculations this large, there has to be a margin for error.” Um, no. But to get bogged down into details in like this is to miss Von Trier’s point. He has made the castle to be a world unto itself. Gainsbourg goes on the Internet, yes, but there is no television, no view of the world at large, which would undoubtedly be in mass hysteria. Von Trier’s end of the world isn’t like Roland Emmerich’s–he’s interested in the internal response, rather than the external.
Dunst, who is by now so depressed she can’t even eat her favorite dish of meat loaf, assumes control in the face of crisis, and Gainsbourg becomes dependent on her. She says something a little mind-bending: “Earth is evil; no one will miss it,” which becomes even more enigmatic when she adds that she has always known that there is no other life in the universe except on Earth. She’s sort of channeling R.E.M.: It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
The film is sumptuous. The images are striking, especially of the oncoming planet and the nighttime shots across the grounds of the estate (more than once it’s mentioned that the golf course has 18 holes, but late in the film Gainsbourg carries her child across the putting green with a flag that reads “19”–discuss). The music is mostly Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan Und Isolde,” which is heavily romantic, and persuades us that Melancholia and Earth’s “dance of death” is as graceful as it is catastrophic.
The acting is all around terrific. Dunst has never been better, and is a good candidate for an Oscar nomination. Throughout the film she underplays, never acting “crazy.” She’s strong in both halves of the film. Frankly, before this film I had never taken Kiefer Sutherland very seriously as an actor, but he’s excellent.
The film isn’t perfect, which I think Von Trier would appreciate, as he said he doesn’t want to make polished films, and prefers them to have flaws. It’s pretty heavy-handed to make the obvious use of the word of the title. But I was caught up in the magic of the film–the drowsy, seemingly never-ending wedding reception, and the isolation of the characters in the second half. It is also periodically funny–when Gainsbourg realizes that the planets will collide, she grabs her son and tries to start the car. Dunst asks her, quite sensibly, “Where are you going?” When the world is about to end, there is no place to go. Calm acceptance is the only response.
My grade for Melancholia: A-