The sky is falling in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but the impending apocalypse is more slow-motion dive than outlandish spectacle. Imagine two tectonic plates casually shifting underneath each other, disrupting the physical and psychological space through measured changes in mood. The degeneration of all things—marriage, family, sisterhood, and emotion—is fated in the stars, lingering like a dense fog on the castle keep that provides the film’s central location. The rollercoaster depression of new bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst), whose wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is a solemn yet glowing family affair, certainly rests at the forefront of von Trier’s mind. However, throughout that fateful night and the impending aftermath, Justine’s growing resignation to the inevitable collapse is the film’s central emotional artifact. Her world has started to die long ago, and we get to see the internal decomposition process.
Melancholia’s staggering opening suggests this will be a personal and slow march toward death. As if to stretch the widescreen image to its breaking point, von Trier rolls out a collage of nearly freeze-framed imagery: a woman carrying her child leaving deep footprints in the ground, a tattered bride moving laterally through a forest of ash, and a stymied horse finally reaching its tipping point. Postcards from the edge have never been this haunting or brimming with terrible grace. Melancholia settles into a specific pace from here, as von Trier rigorously tracks the aforementioned wedding party from various vantage points, including Justine’s older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Uncomfortable toasts, passive-aggressive character assassinations, and business power plays delineate the lions from the lambs. Romantic traditions don’t have a chance transcending an environment seething with this level of uncertainty.
Von Trier divides Melancholia into two parts, separate but equal chapters titled after the two sisters. The first focuses on Justine’s compressed trajectory, the second on Claire’s extended suffering. The segments are mirror images of each other, creating diverging experiences that both have balcony seats to the end of the world. Reconciliation and trust become inanimate emotional objects, so far away from reality that they are entirely alien to these characters. Justine especially seems to exist on another level of consciousness. Dunst’s eyes often drift toward the sky, zeroing in on the approaching planet named Melancholia that is supposed to drift past Earth in an outer space “fly by.” From the moment Justine sets her gaze skyward, she’s entranced, elementally linked to the coming constellation. Every other character responds to Melancholia in reactionary terms: Jack is sure the planet will miss Earth, while Claire is only confident in her own worry of planetary destruction.
Human resignation crucially overlaps themes of perspective and will in Melancholia. Justine initially battles her depression by recycling trauma, yet when she finally gives in to the certainty that a bad moon will rise, calm washes over her face. On the other hand, Claire depends entirely on the conflicting doctrine of John (who represents capitalism incarnate) and the doomsday voices on the Internet. In this sense, Melancholia is split between two colliding souls suffering in vastly different ways. Eventually, the white noise of all ideological camps is dispelled, leaving Justine and Claire to question their motives in epic ambient silence. Chaos reigns one quiet second at a time.
Von Trier avoids antagonizing the viewer with his usual gut-punch theatrics, settling down for a story about colliding worlds, breaking façades, and shifting alliances. The relationships we carry on our shoulders are so heavy the world can literally split apart from the pressure, and there’s nothing like a gigantic blue orb to put specific burdens in perspective. Melancholia finds solace in this respect by dismantling the ways expressions of love, commitment, and family can fail. The hovering balloon lanterns incinerating in the sky, an ignored photograph of a ranch, and dismantled vows are signals of an emotional world shifting off its axis. These are von Trier’s cinematic cave paintings to a pulverizing overture of calamity. Melancholia descends calmly into the fiery red night with an unnerving grace only von Trier could conjure. Life on Earth may be evil, as Justine resolutely confesses in a sobering monologue to Claire, but there’s hope in the mortal resignation that there might be a chance to start again, somewhere ethereal beyond the scope of cinema.