Melancholia is a type of severe depression, characterised by gloomy forebodings and extremely low spirits. It’s the perfect title for this new indie gem from Danish director Lars von Trier, director of 2009’s grotesque arthouse-horror Antichrist. Melancholia, the latest addition to his oeuvre, is billed as “a beautiful movie about the end of the world”. It’s true — Trier weaves a visually stunning and subliminal account of the end times. But despite being classified as “apocalyptic”, the collision of the rogue planet Melancholia with Earth is not the real pivot of this film.
This is not a disaster movie. There is no context, no international panic. We do not see the cast fleeing from colossal tidal waves or struggling through a devastated city. There is simply nowhere for them to run. We are left with a suffocating picture of futility, told through the eyes of two lost souls. It is more than a film: it is an event.
Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a successful young woman with a promising career, who has just married doting sweetheart Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The sumptuous wedding has been organised by her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and takes place in the isolated Swedish chateau where she lives with husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Following the “overture” — a collage of dream-like tableaux vivants, designed to foreshadow the plot and its main themes — the film is divided into two parts: “Justine”, a long-winded account of Michael and Justine’s doomed wedding party, and “Claire”, the beautifully rendered Götterdämmerung. Both parts are deliberately claustrophobic, so that even the apocalypse, when it comes, feels homespun. As Melancholia performs its “dance of death” with Earth, nobody even thinks to turn on the TV, or read a newspaper. The interaction between the characters quickly becomes the heart, soul and life-blood of the film.
Fortunately, Trier and his cast are up to the challenge. Dunst outshines the other cast members with her portrayal of a woman who is both dead to the world and very much aware of it. Her performance of melancholia as a mental condition eclipses the eponymous planet. But Gainsbourg, in turn, is equally convincing as Claire, and arguably gives a more interesting performance: we watch Claire change so drastically, it’s hard to believe it’s the same person playing her. Incredibly, the two actresses manage to switch roles in the second half of the film. Claire — the sane one — becomes fragile and afraid in the face of the apocalypse, whilst Justine embraces it with rapturous relief: “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it”. In one strange and powerful scene, she is even shown bathing in the light of Melancholia, naked and smiling. That scene alone is enough to leave you trembling — that or questioning your existence.
Melancholia is not perfect. The entire wedding party scene in frustratingly slow, even boring. This is undoubtedly the point — to make us feel the same agony that Justine suffers — but for a film rooted so deeply in character interplay, it simply goes on for too long. Half of the characters we become familiar with are ruthlessly expelled from the second half. Personally I would have liked to see a bit more of Skarsgård, whose career is developing at an unprecedented rate since True Blood — but apparently he’s going to crop up alongside Rihanna in Battleship next year. Whether or not that will go well for him has yet to be seen.
Lars von Trier has a simple, if extreme, message: that life has no meaning to a melancholic. Melancholia is not just an exposition, but a celebration of that lack of meaning. And whilst it might leave you with more fat than you can chew, and whilst it may take itself just a little too seriously, it still teems with some of the strongest acting, the most evocative music, and the most beautiful imagery of cinema this summer.