The first thing you see in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a tight close-up of Kirsten Dunst’s face. Behind her, slow as molasses, birds are dropping from the sky. Brueghel’s The Flight of Icarus turns leisurely to ash; a passage from Tristan und Isolde swells on the soundtrack as lightning bolts flash from Dunst’s fingertips. These are the latter days.
From an impossible vantage point in the coldness of outer space, the moment of impact, as another planet smashes into Earth, recalls a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Melancholia’s first five minutes are like a formal invitation to the end of the world; the next 130 minutes allow you to live through the run-up. Every ridiculous platitude, empty ritual, and hysterical anxiety that follows is bathed in the light of eternity or darkened by the shadow of nothingness. An overhead shot of rich people in evening clothes standing by a giant sundial and staring at the horizon? Even for these sheltered swells, death is inevitable.
As Steven Spielberg characterized his interplanetary dustup War of the Worlds, Melancholia is an “experiential” movie—although generically, of course, it’s a disaster film, featuring two disasters. Von Trier devotes the movie’s first half to the abject disintegration of a storybook wedding. For the audience, the fête begins with the giddy bride Justine (Dunst) and nonplussed groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arriving several hours late, in part because their rented stretch limo proves unable to navigate the long, winding road up to the reception, hosted by Justine’s elder sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and fabulously wealthy brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), in their castle (with that sundial and an 18-hole golf course).
Hyperalert Justine, whose name is the title of Melancholia’s first half, immediately notes the strange red star twinkling above and then impulsively runs off to the stables visit her horse. The party, which von Trier shoots vérité-style, is a continuous battle between irresponsible madcap mood-swingers, mainly Justine and her feckless drunken father (John Hurt), and punitive control freaks like uptight Claire and her viperously bad-tempered mother (Charlotte Rampling). The bride’s estranged parents precipitate the debacle with their inappropriate antics. But, thanks to John’s crassness and the insane bullying of Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who improbably doubles as best man, not to mention the director’s own irrepressible bad-boy meanness, the bash turns into a major bummer.
All is vanity; everything falls apart. The wedding is a costly debacle, the painful comedy accentuated by the filmmaker’s handheld frenzy. Increasingly alienated, abandoned, perhaps even martyred, the bride suffers some sort of depressive breakdown. Still, it’s not the end of the world, Justine! That arrives in the movie’s second half—named for Claire. We’re still in the castle, although all the guests have long since fled, as—grown from a speck of light to a noticeable orb—the mystery planet Melancholia bears inexorably down on the Earth.
What is Melancholia? The word describes a state of being. (As a reader pointed out, von Trier’s shining planet is similar to the radiant star marked “melencolia” in Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving, while Dunst has a resemblance to Dürer’s brooding angel.) Claire is acutely apprehensive while John, an amateur astronomer, is boyishly enthusiastic about the new member of our solar system, explaining to their little boy that, by Dad’s calculus, the planet will just miss Earth. Justine, now living with her sister, is so paralyzed with depression that she cannot lift her leg to enter the bathtub. And yet as Claire’s panic escalates, Justine grows mystically attuned to the impending cataclysm, lying naked outside to bathe in Melancholia’s now-blue radiance.
The sisters are such opposite physical types—full and fair, angular and dark—that it’s tempting to see them as the two aspects of von Trier. Crazy Justine is spontaneous and psychic; judgmental Claire is strict and sober. Of course, as attached as she is to correct rules of behavior, Claire is also delusional (“It looks friendly,” she timidly hazards when the digital planet appears over the horizon) and emotionally chaotic Justine turns out to be a realist. “The earth is evil—we don’t need to grieve for it,” she calmly tells her sister, following with the observation that, in the context of the cosmos, “I know we’re alone.”
We are alone, and yet Melancholia dares to imagine (and insist we do as well) the one event that might bring us all together. And then, as Dunst put it after that infamous Cannes press conference, “Lars had to run his mouth.” In the aftermath of Melancholia, von Trier felt compelled to orchestrate his own disaster—was he ashamed of making something so thrillingly sad and beautiful?