Melancholia is two movies. It’s in two parts, and it essentially has two plots that are tangentially related. Viewed as a whole, it feels incomplete; when each part is viewed separately, one part seems much more relatable and tangible than the other. It is at times esoteric and full of deep meaning, and it features some interesting performances by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Since it is directed by Lars von Trier, it will as a matter of course not be for all tastes.
The first chapter is named after Dunst’s character, Justine. The scene is a wedding and reception at a secluded mansion. Justine is getting married to Michael, and the mansion is owned by Justine’s sister and brother in law. It is a lavish affair, but Justine becomes more and more morose as the evening progresses. We’re not sure exactly why, and it’s not evident she knows, either, but in any event she is quickly a psychological wreck, sometimes disappearing before major events as the cake cutting and dinner eating. It’s obvious Justine feels she’s making a mistake, but she’s unable to articulate why. Only her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) attempts to help her, as nearly everyone else seems much more absorbed in themselves than in the happiness of the bride.
Near the end of the chapter – not a spoiler – Justine notices that a star that her brother in law John (Kiefer Sutherland) had pointed out before, Antarer, is missing from its constellation. An oddity, to be sure. That leads us to the second chapter, which is devoted to Claire and takes place some time after the reception. The reason for the quick disappearance of Antares (a red giant some 1000 light years from Earth) is noted – a heretofore unknown planet, hiding behind the Sun, had briefly eclipsed Antares. Oh, and it’s heading toward Earth. But don’t be afraid, says John, who’s an amateur astronomer; it’ll pass by us harmlessly.
The chapter is told from Claire’s point of view regarding her apprehension of this planet fly-by and her relationship with Justine. In truth, we get a lot more of the astronomical aspect of the rogue planet (named Melancholia) and its approach to Earth. John and Claire’s young son Leo (Cameron Spurr) even constructs a device made of wire that allows the user to determine how quickly Melancholia is moving.
The first chapter is about an hour long. In my mind, it could have all been cut. My impression is that it was intended to lay the foundation for the relationship between Justine and Claire, but truthfully it seemed superficial and boring. I knew less about either than I should have, and as the chapter progressed I became a little annoyed at Claire’s seemingly selfish behavior. I guess we were supposed to feel sympathy for her – and I did, a little – but without some clarification of why she felt so horribly bummed out, it was tough to be on her side, particularly when she seemed to have misgivings about the wedding right from the first scene. (This may have been explained in a scene late in the movie, but if that was the explanation, it was a lame one.)
Images and imagery are both at full throttle here, but this isn’t Kubrick’s 2001. The opening scene, showing the slow-motion destruction of planets colliding is interesting to look at but drags on for more than seven minutes. It’s arty and portentous, but it’s tough to get through. After that we have myriad interactions with unpleasant characters – except for Justine and Leo, and that’s about it. By then I was so tired of Justine’s mumblings and attitude – even as I sympathized with her, as she tried to get someone, anyone, to talk to her – that I was looking forward to the second chapter.
Claire’s chapter, in which she really takes a back seat to the new planet, is the more intriguing of the two. What will happen when Melancholia passes Earth? Scientists say nothing will happen; John concurs. So why is Justine, now a complete depressive, even more withdrawn and reticent, so passive while others fret about Life? She claims to know things (with some pretty floppy evidence to support it), too. I guess that makes her Claire-voyant. I could have resisted that, but I blame von Trier on making his character Know Things.
The final scene does have some deep meaning, and it’s very well done. In fact, even as it unfolds I had no idea how it was going to end; von Trier could have gone in a couple of directions with equal plausibility. Those ending shots are wondrous to behold and go a long way to making the film.