A counterpoint to the emotionally detached Hollywood disaster movie, Lars von Trier here presents a strikingly personal account of the apocalypse. Inspired largely by the director’s recent struggle with depression, the film depicts melancholic Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her selfless, pragmatic sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they attempt to come to terms with Earth’s imminent annihilation.
Deliberately shying away from scientific plausibility, von Trier instead focuses on the fractured relationships between the characters. The first half takes place on the evening of Justine’s wedding reception, as she and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) battle through a series of tumultuous events which are largely the fault of her own stubbornness. The constant bickering of her estranged parents adds to the chaos, with her mother (Charlotte Rampling) icily condemning marital union itself.
The leisurely-paced middle section may be a sticking point for some, as Claire devotedly works to hold Justine together whilst trying to dispel her own fears about the end of the world. It begins to appear as though Claire, with a greater amount to lose than her cheerless sister, is struggling to accept that everything she holds dear will soon cease to exist. This marks a gradual shift in the emotional balance of the two sisters, cultivating an unnerving tension as the approaching planet Melancholia looms ever-larger in the sky.
Dunst is hypnotic in the lead role, drawing from her own troubled past to portray Justine as frustrating yet fragile, desperate to maintain control in the face of her debilitating illness. The camerawork is both intimate and constantly curious, yet she remains wretchedly blank and unreadable, even as the narrative reaches its cataclysmic end. As the beleaguered Claire, Gainsbourg also excels, in a markedly less troubling role than her previous encounter with von Trier: the controversial Antichrist.
Bookended by scenes of startling beauty and accompanied by a grandiose Wagnerian score, Melancholia is an extremely ambitious film. Von Trier’s interweaving of delicate emotional moments, spectacular visual set pieces and a peppering of his idiosyncratic Danish humour is an unsettling combination, yet one that cements Melancholia as a remarkable tragi-comic fairytale.