Lars von Trier’s Melancholia peaks with its prelude, a dazzling eight-minute collage of slow-motion postcards from an apocalyptic edge. Birds fall from the sky like snowflakes; a bride (Kirsten Dunst) walks through a forest green, weighed down by the roots and vines that cling to her legs and arms and wedding dress; a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) holding a tot in her scrawny arms trudges through a nightmarish golf course that’s seemingly turned to quicksand; and a planet collides with our own. Set to the prelude to Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” this poetic, referential succession of near-still images so immaculately distills Melancholia’s moody narrative and themes that it makes the two-hours-plus that follow seem impossibly redundant.
Part one begins and ends at a very posh wedding. Justine (Dunst) and her soon-to-be husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), arrive late to the ceremony after amusingly trying to maneuver their limo through the rock-bordered pathway leading to the luxe home of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her money-minded husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The wedding goes on, but not without several dozen hitches. Charlotte Rampling, as Justine and Claire’s emotionally unavailable mother, revolts against the institute of marriage before locking herself in her room; John Hurt, as their father, pays loving tribute to the newlyweds before announcing his own unavailability the day after; and Stellan Skarsgård, as Justine’s boorish boss, sicks a young lackey (Brady Corbertt) on the girl to troll for the tagline to an ad campaign that, like many of the film’s images, is informed by a popular painting.
Half as wry, biting, and attuned to its characters’ emotional conflictions as the entirety of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, the improvisatory Melancholia’s first part unspools as a well-acted whiff of cartoonishly rote family affairs. Justine is understood to be perpetually flighty, perhaps even a bit manic depressive, but there’s no depth to the story’s understanding of what ails her. Dunst articulates Justine’s lack of conviction well enough, but the roots of her character’s emotional traumas remain hidden. At its most trite, this vague psychological portraiture sees Justine dramatically consummate her marriage with someone other than her husband—in a scene that says less about Justine than it does about von Trier’s view of women as inherently toxic (perhaps a taste of what’s to come in Nymphomanic).
In the film’s second part, the conceit of the world coming to an end becomes von Trier’s way of conflating the cosmic with the personal. As the planet Melancholia, whose name is essentially a florid diagnosis of Justine’s mental affliction, moves closer to our own, Justine and her sister would appear to swap personalities. Having lost Michael at the end of the first part, ostensibly for cheating on him (though there’s no indication that he, or anyone else for that matter, actually witnessed her indiscretion), Justine spends what may be her last days in her sister and brother-in-law’s country manse. While Claire mopes and entertains suicide and Justine beats her childhood horse and gets naked by a riverbank, John maintains a calm demeanor, dispelling doomsayer predictions and turning the looming cosmic tragedy into a game for his son, though as few things are in the film, looks can be deceiving.
Melancholia is a film of few epiphanies and even fewer insights, and as artful as the film’s doom and gloom may be, its symbolism flounders. The idea of Justine and Claire swapping personas, as planets might gravitational pulls, doesn’t soar because there are so few variances between the women’s personalities to begin with, and no real sense of one borrowing from each other’s strengths and weaknesses; in short, a cipher becomes a cipher and vice versa. Claire begins the film in meekness and ends it in flailing gesticulations of panic, and while Justine may resign herself to our extinction with peace of mind, even bravery, her conviction is hardly a departure from the confidence she earlier exhibits as she lashes out at the world; the only difference is that her destruction is now out of her own hands.
The sight of Melancholia approaching and retreating from Earth exudes a splendiferously forlorn feeling, though the planet’s movement is ultimately as empty as the superficial, barely detailed anxieties of the film’s muddled characters. A puppy dog next to the barbed Antichrist, Melancholia similarly reflects the nihilistic world view of its maker, in this case von Trier’s depressed view of life as not worth living. A more profound sense of its characters’ inner lives might have made the film’s denouement resonate fiercely as an affront to the ways we chose to shed our mortal coil. Instead, the film crawls to its conclusion with the glamorously desultory verve of a model posing for Vogue’s September issue. Udo Kier, who scores a few laughs as a wedding planner who fumes over Justine’s seemingly deliberate efforts to sabotage her own wedding, might find that fierce, or he would subject the film to the same monstrous shade he flings at the girl, covering his face with his hand so he doesn’t have to look at her. His cunty show of self-preservation may be the key to unlocking Melancholia’s most essential truth: that unexamined lives aren’t worth watching.