Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide into the Earth.
The end of the world is a great subject for cinema. It’s the human fear of mortality writ large. It’s the fear of your death plus the loss of every person and every thing you ever loved or cared about. It’s as huge and reductive an idea as our small, pulsing monkey brains can handle. According to the movies, Life As We Know It could end in so many ways; by comet or asteroid as in DEEP IMPACT or ARMAGEDDON; by climate change as in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW or even by ambulatory alien shrubs as in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. Science Fiction is the default genre for this kind of story.
However, if you’re a ground-breaking cinematic auteur, you might forgo an apocalyptic sci-fi and go in a very different way. You could plan a huge, lush art film, hire some top international acting talent and then create a number of scenarios around a wedding party and its immediate aftermath. If anyone could take such an offbeat approach and deliver a coherent and engaging result, then director Lars Von Trier is that filmmaker.
The first half of MELANCHOLIA is the story of Justine (Dunst). It’s her wedding day and despite being given a lavish party by her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Sutherland), she is not happy. At first, her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) doesn’t see how depressed she actually is, but her sister has obviously dealt with Justine’s condition before. This part of the film is a mostly straightforward drama with family members behaving according to type. The sisters’ distant father (John Hurt) is there for his own hedonistic reasons. Their mother (Charlotte Rampling) seems bent on expressing her contempt for the ritual of marriage. Justine’s employer (Stellan Skarsgård) insists she complete an unfinished job for him. The day seems to be an opportunity for all the people in Justine’s life to pursue their own agendas.
The second half of the film focuses more on Claire’s life. She lives in a massive house with John and their one child. Claire is concerned that a new planet with the unlikely name of Melancholia will crash into the Earth. John is an amateur astronomer and is unconcerned; he trusts the scientific authorities that say there is no danger.
MELANCHOLIA is a parable and a work of art; it’s a piece of overheated drama and a strange and self-conscious fairytale. Von Trier is having fun while at the same time running a thought experiment; there’s nothing left and there’s no time – so who are you? It’s paradoxically profound and silly. To truly enjoy this movie, you have to be prepared to play the director’s game. If you don’t like the premise, the visual aesthetic, the completely unscientific ‘science’, then you’ll be unlikely to endure this grand, ridiculous film.
It’s the performances that ground MELANCHOLIA. Your eyes tell you instantly that Gainsbourg’s face with its fragile and tough qualities has no familial link with Durst’s blunt, pretty features. But these are good actors, who inhabit their roles and create a believably fractious family whose members have little common ground. Justine’s sinking into depression is palpable; you can see why her sister is so affected and frustrated with her. Gainsbourg plays the practical no-nonsense Claire, but she also lets you see the mother frightened that she won’t be able to protect her child. Although Dunst’s performance has deservedly gained much critical acclaim and a Best Actress Award from Cannes, Gainsbourg’s excellent performance is just as crucial to the film’s success.
There were moments when I was reminded of other films like the glittering LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961) or THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972); the pacing and weirdness seemed to hark back to other existential cinema experiences, however Von Trier’s movie is definitely its own thing. I find some of his films shrill or emotionally detached, so I thought MELANCHOLIA was a welcome change of pace. This is Von Trier at his most humane. He’s destroying the world, so he can afford to be merciful.
MELANCHOLIA is screening currently in Australia. It runs for 135 minutes. I rated it 4/5.