Melancholia is the first Lars Von Trier movie I’ve ever seen. The film is a doomsday melodrama that follows two sisters—one a depressed newlywed (Kirsten Dunst) and the other a loving wife and mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—as a rogue planet, with the titular appellation, hurls toward earth on a course to obliterate humanity. The film is a gorgeous work of Art Cinema that features expert and eclectic cinematography and a brilliant performance from Kirsten Dunst.
In the wordless opening sequence a prologue of silent slow motion images operatically fill the frame with a sense of elegant, melodic dread. On what looks like a country club golf course, Dunst stands, Jazz hands up, with electricity curiously oozing from her fingertips. Another woman (Gainsbourg) runs in fright with a small child in her arms, but her feet sink deep into the bucolic fairway grass. A beautiful black stallion slumps plaintively—but proudly—to the ground. Every shot is crosscut with celestial vistas of a small planet making its determined way toward earth. Lastly, a bride, Dunst again, holds a bouquet and floats serenely on her back through a stream filled with phosphorescent vegetation. The sequence feels like a dream, but it might be, gulp, a premonition.
Our first hint at its potential realism comes when the very same bride (Dunst) arrives with her new hubby (Alexander Skarsgard) at their wedding reception. The party is at the very same seaside golf course estate (another hint); the bride’s name is Justine, and she’s none too happy about the idea of marriage. She puts on a plastic smile for her beau, her father (John Hurt), her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), her boss (Stellan Skarsgaard), and her sister Claire (Gainsbourg), who triples as hostess and wedding planner. Justine is far from the blushing bride, but her misery comes not from jitters or surliness—she’s swimming in a depression so deep she’s drowning. This wedding feels like the end of her world.
Dunst is marvelous in the role. She has the ability to perk up at times when Justine feels like she can weather the storm. The actress’s bright eyes, sweet smile, and golden hair remind us of her attainable, approachable beauty. Since her beginnings as a child star, she has carried that adorableness into an adult career (like in Spider-Man). In Melancholia, she uses it to façade a more perverse layer of unreachable despondency. When her shift into isolated headspace arrives, Dunst’s eyes droop, her head hangs loose—she appears as if drugged, unaffected, dead to the world. But the greatness of the performance comes not from the extremes, but from the middle ground where she’s clearly fighting the sorrow. In the second half of the film Justine reaches an impasse, and destruction appears to be her only possible solace.
Convenient since the strange red dot in the night sky, which she puzzles over continuously at her wedding, turns out to be a planet called Melancholia headed right for ours. Act II of Von Trier’s spaced-out opera switches the focus to Claire, but takes place at the same golf course mansion several months (or years?) after Justine’s nuptials. Claire’s husband, John (Sutherland), claims the renegade orb will pass peaceably by. At least, that’s what the scientists say. Claire frets anyhow, for the safety of herself, her sister, and, mostly, her young son Leo. The film comes to a heart-pounding conclusion as the dreaded sphere barrels toward their upper crust, pastoral home.
Like in The Shining or Alien, the setting itself becomes a character. The protagonists can never seem to escape it: Justine’s horse always stops on the first bridge off the property; Claire’s golf cart dies in the very same spot. Looking over the water, just off their back garden as the planet encroaches on the horizon, the viewer feels as if this place is the edge of the world, or perhaps existence entire. The setting caters to the film’s dream logic, with which everything seems slightly askew. Like the Garden of Eden as designed by a country club architect, the place is a bourgeois rapture carved from dreamscape imagery.
The majestic cinematography (by Manuel Alberto Claro) reiterates the film’s visionary grand design. While much of it employs Von Trier’s trademark shaky cam (made famous during the Dogme-95 movement), other moments show an astute propensity for Renaissance compositions. At what point, Justine bathes nude in the glow of Melancholia’s approaching atmosphere, appearing like a model in a Botticelli painting.Though, it’s not allusion for its own sake—Justine is in harmony with the planet, basking in its literal gravity while she feels it relatively, internalized. Rumors have surfaced that Dunst battled depression herself. Von Trier is infamous for his phobias. Melancholia must be a deeply personal film for both star and auteur. Attempting to realize strong and complex human emotions on film can be tricky business. Von Trier does it here like a master. And, surprisingly, his film doesn’t leave viewers feeling depressed, but transcended. For one sister, marriage was catastrophic. For the other, the end of the world is the only way she could possibly understand. In either case, they face them together. The result is a kind of ineffable spiritual equilibrium, a sense that life and love are ephemeral, but peace is possible and eternal. Other than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is the most ambitious, singular and downright magnificent cinematic experience of 2011 so far.