This tale of two sisters involves Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first half details the lavish wedding day of the comatose Justine. It’s an unhappy event where most people try to put on their best face—despite being discontent themselves—in the presence of a bipolar bride who would throw away all the customs of being an adult to recline in a lily pond. The second part involves the final days of civilization told from the perspective of the fretful Claire, as a rogue planet may or may not crash into Earth.
The dual stories possibly take place in alternate universes at the same time, a sort of Mobius Strip tale one might expect from David Lynch. Even without this nonlinear element, there is plenty one can scratch one’s head over, as it’s loaded with symbolism mounted in an abstract framework. Justine doesn’t have a clear direction, yet there are greater truths to which she appears privy. Dunst carries the role quite admirably. Her determined pensiveness keeps the audience from getting too lost in the fog or woods surrounding the 18-hole golf course that’s part of the matrimony site.
While Justine often acts on a whim, Claire requires a rigidity to maintain her sanity, as she’s easily lost. At one point, her son Leo constructs a simple relational tool to measure the approaching planet, Melancholia, which she’s able to understand better than a telescope or internet research. Science means nothing to her. As long as she can feel like she is going to be okay, she can ignore the reality that takes place around her. In turn, she is protective of her child and wants nothing more than to assure him that all is good, even in the face of doom. This reveals a selfishness on her part for wanting to protect her son from pain rather than help him build a shield of fortitude.
Von Trier displays his usual disgust with humanity here, but he’s at his most watchable. Like the recent Tree of Life, Melancholia studies the individual in the face of adversity in the context of the greater universe. This is the director’s metaphor for maintaining calm while enduring a wrathful personal depression and the results are quite endearing. Yet, the sometimes non-expressive nature of the sisters can be confounding at times.
Casting is very clinical with the wickedly unamused Charlotte Rampling playing the matronly figure. While her brunette resemblance to Gainsbourg makes complete sense, she strikes her battles exclusively opposite Dunst. Their chemistry is appropriately chilly. Also in the cast are Kiefer Sutherland as Claire’s money-conscious scientist husband; the always welcomed Udo Kier as the wedding planner; John Hurt as the paternal Dexter; and father and son Stellan and Alexander Skarsgard as Justine’s boss and husband, respectively.
Von Trier’s sky-is-falling theme is captured quite lyrically through the gorgeous cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro. The quick editing and lush imagery offer a palpable eroticism. You can almost smell the love scenes. The handheld minimalism and golden hues of the interior wedding party shots give way to Claire’s forlorn, ashy, bleak last days. Richard Wagner’s prelude to his opera Tristan und Isolde adds elegant intrigue to the proceedings.
Von Trier is much more interested in the internal struggles of man (or, perhaps, thumbing his nose at them) than he is in visual effects (von Trier’s aspirations as a director couldn’t ever justify a big budget as it is). His use of the universe shots and the fictitious blue planet are economical and effective for his purposes. Even in the minimalist finale, he shrewdly sidesteps a cheesy tone through simplicity.
Melancholia is part of an unofficial trilogy of End of Days films showing at the recent New York Film Festival including Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (as pointed out by a Turkish-American film critic I had the pleasure of meeting during my time in the city this past October). Yet, oddly enough, out of all three directors’ films, von Trier’s piece passes as the most optimistic.