Melancholia is not for everyone. It is at times painstakingly art-house, unpleasant, and frustrating, but all the while beautiful, mesmerizing, and bewitchingly intense. I imagine that there will be a certain crowd who will turn away from the film – at least question their choice for the evening – within its first five minutes, a montage of the end of the world. This is not the world’s end as we’ve seen it elsewhere in film; no crumbling skyscrapers or rip-roaring crevasses split the movie screen here. No, in Lars von Trier’s vision, the world’s end is a work of art in extreme slow-motion. These opening moments feature some of the film’s most memorable imagery: lightning emits from finger tips, a mother trudges across a golf course clutching her child, and planets collide.
Still, for many, Melancholia’s 130 minutes will feel as though it were all in slow motion. Know what you’re getting into.
The protagonists of this apocalypse in two parts are Justine and Claire, played with award-worthy gumption by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Part one focuses on Dunst’s deeply depressed Justine on her wedding night, which she effectively ruins with her back-and-forth hysteria. But Justine can’t take all the blame – neither of her parents, played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, seem to have it held together, he calling every girl in the room “Betty” and she making enemies of everyone else. The wedding reception faces delay after delay thanks to Justine’s erratic behaviour, which finds her taking mid-dinner baths and late night joyrides on golf carts. Poor groom Michael, played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard, should have known what he was getting into.
Part one is a deliciously tragic, and funny at times, wedding film (think Rachel Getting Married meets Atonement) with only brief moments of reference to the pending apocalypse of the film’s opening. As frustrating as Justine’s actions are (only elevated by Skarsgard’s likability), Dunst’s performance is impossible to forget, and Oscar should take note accordingly.
If Depression is a good name for part one, Paranoia is a suiting name for Gainsbourg’s part two.
Some time passes after the events of the wedding and the planet Melancholia prepares for its “fly-by,” much to the dismay of Claire. She has done the requisite doomsday Google-searching that we all have in 2011 (you’ve searched “2012 Mayan calendar” too). But with the reassurance of Jack Bauer – that is, Kiefer Sutherland’s scientist John – that Melancholia will indeed fly by Earth, Claire can momentarily calm her nerves.
If none of the images of part two ever match the awe of von Trier’s opening sequence, Melancholia’s “dance of death” around Earth in the film’s second half still makes for some mesmerizing viewing you won’t soon forget. Just know what you’re getting into before you commit to watching the world end artfully.