The end of the world, as witnessed by a manic-depressive bride.
That’s a pithy way of describing Melancholia, yet the movie has a remoteness, a staginess, that doesn’t allow you to get much closer. As another piece of nihilistic provocation from Danish writer-director Lars von Trier, it’s never anything less than arresting, but always in a cool, clinical way.
A collector of tragic heroines (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark), von Trier this time turns to Kirsten Dunst, whose china doll vacancy is appropriate for the lead role of Justine. We meet her, grinning, on the way to her wedding reception, but it’s soon clear that the good cheer is a facade. Justine actually lives in a fog of melancholia, where her new husband’s promises of future bliss are hard to see and her family’s orders to “be happy” are vaguely heard.
Meanwhile – and this is a big meanwhile – the newly discovered planet Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth.
I’d try to weave those two strands a bit more delicately, except that von Trier hardly bothers. This is especially true in the second half, which is mostly given over to the growing hysteria of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A caring soul (she hosts Justine’s wedding in the hope that marriage will ease her mind), Claire fears the loss of her family as Melancholia approaches. Justine, meanwhile, fades to the background with an eerie calmness; she’s been waiting for the end for years.
There are clear philosophical battle lines being drawn here (the film is even broken into two parts, each named for one of the women). Claire, a nurturer, is our figure of hope, the one who sees promise in the future. Justine, the melancholic opposite, sees escape in obliteration. I won’t give away whose philosophy wins out, except to remind you that the movie is directed by von Trier.
The limitation of Melancholia is that it never works on anything other than this sort of theoretical level. There is nothing at stake in emotional terms. This is especially striking in a year that has featured two deeply personal and similarly audacious films that flirt with the apocalyptic: Take Shelter and The Tree of Life. There is a sense of humanity in both of those pictures that is missing from Melancholia. They do a far better job commingling character and the cosmic.
Melancholia is second to none, however, in terms of visual accomplishment. We learn that Justine is an advertising art director, and the movie opens with a series of slow-motion images (Justine’s dreams? foreshadowings?) that have been art-directed within an inch of their lives (and scored with Wagner, no less). They’re fabulous – the one of Justine fleeing from vines while wearing her wedding dress seems to be from some unheard fairy tale – but like so much of the movie, they’re also at a remove, as if they’re taking place within a department store’s display window. Always engrossing, Melancholia nevertheless lies behind von Trier’s impenetrable pane of glass.