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.