The best and most memorable parts of Melancholia come at the beginning and end. In the first, the rogue planet Melancholia rumbles ominously into a deadly alignment with Earth as the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde blasts deafeningly, and in the second, the two planets are drawn inexorably towards each other and collide. These scenes, shown as the prologue and finale, are truly powerful, very scary, and somehow strangely beautiful.
In these moments, Melancholia is rendered totally convincing. The bad news is that the rest of Lars von Trier’s film is far too infatuated with its own obtuse and overbearing metaphor: that is, the arbitrary extinguishment of earth as a representation of its central character’s overpowering melancholy. It’s not only that the film’s astrological fatalism is little more than depressive realism writ large. It’s that everything in between the start and finish is trifling fodder.
Melancholia is separated into two parts. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is getting married in the first half, at a castle on the coast owned by her Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy, officious husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland). In the second, Claire brings Justine into her home just as they learn that Melancholia is approaching Earth, and they, along with everyone else, have not much longer to live and that there is nothing they can do about it.
During the film’s first part, called “Justine,” Von Trier spends an exorbitant amount of time treating us to the worst wedding in the world. Justine is having problems with her groom (Alexander Skarsgård), as demonstrated by the fact that she keeps wandering outside, alone, throughout the evening. On one occasion, she squats to pee on the estate’s golf course, her face a mix of guilt and ecstasy: what, exactly, is the point of this? Even as such images might illustrate Justine’s capacity for emotional destructiveness, really, this part of the film is a series of mundane activities that quickly becomes tedious, punctuated by characters periodically staring up at the sky and making remarks like, “The red star’s missing from Scorpio.”
Most of the players at the wedding are outrageous and under-formed. The most egregious example is Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s cantankerous mother Gaby, who tells her daughter, on her own wedding day, that she should “enjoy it while it lasts,” and refuses to be in the room when Justine cuts the cake: “I wasn’t there when she had her first crap on the potty,” she says. “I wasn’t there when she had her first sexual intercourse. So give me a break with all of your fucking rituals.” Rampling plays nasty very well, but you can’t believe Gaby in the slightest. Tim (Brady Corbet), a fresh-faced new employee at the advertising firm where Justine works, is similarly false. Tasked by their employer (Stellan Skarsgård) to follow her around all night and “get a tagline,” he’s apparently also quite smitten by her. She responds by teasing him for a few minutes, then having vindictive dry sex with him on the golf course, a subplot that’s not only irritating, but also pointless. Only John Hurt emerges unscathed: there’s such warmth in his eyes, such experience etched into the wrinkles on his face, that he’s a pleasure to watch as the sisters’ doddering dad.
As the film is split between his daughters, they’re ostensibly opposites. Much has been made of the accuracy of Dunst’s portrayal of crippling depression (and she took the Best Actress award at Cannes). But I found Justine to less a character than a nihilistic mouthpiece of doom. At first she’s morbidly depressed, then she’s violently ill to the point of helplessness. I found much of her behavior, such as her labored delivery of lines, walking around with her eyes closed, and proclamation that the meatloaf her sister has cooked for her “tastes like ashes!” to be mawkishly over the top.
The much-discussed premise of the film has Justine’s familiarity with gloom granting her a certain capacity for coping as Melancholia nears Earth. Facing imminent annihilation, Justine somehow pulls herself together and morphs into a supernatural force. “I know things,” she breathes to Claire, and the movie tacitly approves her “otherness.” She knows the number of beans in a jar at a competition at her wedding, just as she knows that “life is only on Earth” and that it is “evil.” Claire doesn’t press her for an explanation of her insight.
The contrast between the two sisters informs their responses to Melancholia. Claire, who is also the mother of five-year-old Leo (Cameron Spurr), doesn’t move much beyond alert wariness, though she is understandably distraught at the prospect of being vaporized. Justine is cooler, more rational, vaguely sinister. At one stage, she even goes out to bathe naked in the malevolent glow of the advancing planet, at which point we feel like saying: “Okay, we get it.” She not only embraces the chaos of the end of the world, but she also finds it erotic.
Such moments don’t so much expand the emotional scope of the film as they limit its effects. Melancholia is far from transcendent. It is certainly overlong. Its treatment of Justine’s illness is bludgeoning and laughably overblown, as are its philosophical pretensions. But the final scene, in which the sisters come to terms with their deaths and sit with Leo on the lawn as the planet comes up behind them, is truly spectacular, perhaps the most overpowering thing I’ve seen in any movie this year. Those apocalyptic moments are uncompromising and breathtaking. They will stay with you.