From the first opening scenes of Lars von Trier’s "Melancholia", you know that this apocalyptic tale will not involve any oil riggers saving us at the last minute. Fans of Michael Bay-esque disaster movies will find nothing here. For everyone else though, "Melancholia" is a beautiful and emotional journey through depression and inevitability.
The movie, which is divided into two parts, follows the lives of two sisters: the very troubled Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the more grounded and seemingly stable Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first half of the movie focuses on Justine’s wedding reception, as she is literally dragging herself through one of the most uncomfortable happenings in her life. What according to everyone, should be her happiest hour, feels a lot more destructive than the oncoming doom that is awaiting. The second half of Melancholia shows us how the two sisters have to deal with Justine’s disease taking a turn for the worse, whilst a newly discovered planet called ‘Melancholia’ slowly travels towards earth, which might or might not end all life as we know it.
It’s an odd marriage of two seemingly very separate themes, but in practice work quite well together. During the wedding scenes, the viewer switches from genuine happiness, to embarrassing moments, from earnest sweetness to unreasonable madness in just a matter of seconds. It is a very hard and uncomfortable thing to sit through, yet feels like a genuine look in what it might feel like to suffer from depression. Justine feels like she is trapped between the triviality of certain rituals, the expectations of those that surround her and the love and happiness she should feel. You can’t help but relate to Justine, as you wonder who is actually the most stable person at the reception.
The second half skilfully makes the connection between Justine’s disease and the upcoming doom, as she comes to peace with the unavoidable climax of her seemingly hopeless situation, even as every other stable factor in life around her seems to do the opposite. It’s a very moving journey and you genuinely care for how the two sisters deal with each other, themselves and the situation presented.
This story is carried by incredible acting by the two leading ladies, with Dunst deserving the biggest kudos. Her portrayal of the depressed Justine is a work of both beauty and sadness, and feels truly haunted at times. It is a very hard part and feels very real throughout. Gainsbourg gives a solid performance as her caring sister, dealing with these things in a very different way. They are two very opposite roles but still feel very connected.
The movie also has a very high profile support cast, with the majority appearing in the first half. The performances by "True Blood" hunk Alexander Skarsgård and Charlotte Rampling are memorable, portraying a very timid but earnest groom and a very unsubtle and destructive mother respectively.
Less impressive are Kiefer Sutherland and Stellan Skarsgård. The latter is stuck in the least interesting storyline about Justine’s work at an ad agency. It adds very little to the story and symbolism, and at times feel just simply weird and disconnected. Sutherland (who has the most screen time of the supporting roles) is never convincing as the astronomist husband of Claire, a man who is greatly excited by the arrival of Melancholia. You can’t shake the feeling that he’ll announce himself to be Jack Bauer and will miraculously nuke the rogue planet. A miscast which is a shame since the role is quite central to the plot.
Visually this movie is absolutely stunning, with the opening scenes being one of the most memorable ever. The slow motion sequence set at the end of days is a sheer thing of beauty and lingers in your mind which is greatly helped by the beautiful musical score. Also the pending climax and an aerial shot of horseback riding are true cinematic wonders. For this reason it is highly recommended to see this in a theatre to fully appreciate its beauty.
The movie is certainly not for everyone’s liking. The very natural and ‘real’ approach that fans of von Trier's work are familiar with can be slow at times and therefore not appealing to a broad audience. This is a real shame because they would miss out on a gem. The end of the world has never been this beautiful.