By Carolyn Williams
Director Lars von Trier’s latest film “Melancholia” is being billed as “a movie about the end of the world” and honestly, it would be impossible to sum it up more aptly.
The film begins with a painfully lovely series of tableaux in which we see the fate of Earth as the planet Melancholia approaches. Von Trier has enlightened his audience before his characters, because the first half of the movie happens in complete ignorance of the doom inching ever closer.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst, “Spider Man,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) is a new bride on her way to her wedding reception, giddy with delight, at least at first. Looking a vision in a lavish wedding dress, with bashful groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, “True Blood,” “Generation Kill”) trailing along behind, they reach Justine’s sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Jane Eyre,” “Antichrist”) old world seaside estate, hours late into the reception. From here on out, the audience quickly becomes privy to Justine’s crippling depression. Although weddings in general are a display of human folly, Justine takes it to a new level as she tanks her career, has random, public sex and takes a bath when she’s supposed to be cutting her cake. Claire, uptight and humorless, is mortified and frustrated by Justine’s behavior, as is her husband John, (Kiefer Sutherland, “24”) who is financing this extravagant disaster. By the end of the night, the groom has left and the bride is left alone with her sister’s family. She tells her sister “But I tried, Claire,” to which Claire responds, bleakly, “You did. I know you did.”
Time passes before the next segment of the movie takes place. This half centers on the duty-bound Claire and the arrival of the newly discovered planet Melancholia. While John, an enthusiastic astronomer, seemingly cannot wait for what scientists have predicted will be a very near miss as Melancholia travels past Earth, Claire is absolutely panicking, convinced that the end of the world is imminent. Justine has come to visit, and it is immediately evident how far her own melancholia seems to have progressed since we last encountered her. While Claire clings desperately to the hope of survival and a continuation of life on Earth, Justine prophetically speaks her own harshly fatalistic understanding of the situation. She says, “Life is only on Earth. And not for long.”
“Melancholia” is an inhumanly beautiful film and is, at times, genuinely excruciating to watch. Von Trier (“Antichrist,” “Dogville”) turns his attention once again to the suffering of women and in Dunst has found a truly spectacular leading lady. Dunst, who has already secured the award for best actress at Cannes this year, carries the film with her fantastic portrayal of a woman in the grips of an unshakeable depression. She is a veritable angel of death as the known world dissolves around her and she is exultant to be destroyed as well. “Melancholia” is cinematographically magnificent, with an excellent ensemble cast and a brilliant star, but be forewarned, the story itself is grim and the film is anything but a happy one.