Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Meanwhile, the planet, Melancholia, is heading towards Earth. Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for her performance.
At the beginning of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia the world ends. Wagner is heard, naturally (the prelude to Tristan and Isolde), and the screen cuts between glowing celestial shots of a large blue planet literally crashing into ours, and the final moments of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who in stylised set-ups see birds falling from the sky or experience their footsteps sinking into the very ground. The destruction is cataclysmic, total.
But in showing his impressions of the end of the world von Trier also reveals images from Justine’s subconscious – such as the young woman in a wedding gown struggling against a heavy tangle of ropes – and he sees the two as being linked; only the end of all life is an extreme enough event to make the bleak thoughts that lurk within us a reality. Melancholia repeatedly returns to this idea, linking the ultimate disaster with psychological despair.
The notion of one object obliterating another is a metaphor for marriage, and in the film’s first part, Justine is named for the bride celebrating her nuptials to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at the country estate of Claire and her wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Grotesques shade and then overwhelm the reception: the sibling’s father (John Hurt) is a rambunctious drunkard, while their mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a stern patriarch. 'Enjoy it while it lasts," she positively sneers.
Dressed to the nines, these family monsters suggests that von Trier is making a demented black comedy version of The Philadelphia Story, but his focus is Justine, whose struggle with depression is evocatively fashioned by Dunst with heavy-lidded exhaustion and sudden turns of emotional extremism. 'Auntie Steelbreaker," Claire’s son, Leo (Cameron Spurr), calls his aunt, and the nickname is at first a bleak joke. Justine is seemingly broken.
Initially a distant light in the sky, a planet that had previously been hiding behind the sun – Lars von Trier 1, Astronomy 0 – grows ever closer, and in the second part of the film, named for Claire, it’s arrival is imminent, supposedly to pass close by. Justine is now residing with Claire and her family, barely able to wake let alone bathe herself. The two sisters are the equivalent to the two planets, and between them is a kind of cruel love. Claire comforts Justine, but then shrieks at her; the latter acknowledges her failings, but couches them as affronts to her sibling’s controlling nature.
Some of the themes here, such as sex being a form of release as well as a kind of self-abasement, are familiar to von Trier’s body of work, but much of Melancholia feels deeply connected to his previous feature, 2009’s Antichrist. Both works flirted with genre tropes – horror and now mass disaster – and both turned on the nature of female energy. At the end of Antichrist Willem Dafoe’s husband is confronted by a torrent of feminine figures, while here it is the women (abandoned by men) who must face the fiery end together.
'Sometimes I hate you so much, Justine," Claire hisses, and to von Trier it’s only natural that you would always hate someone you love. Nothing for the better can pass without its dark reflection in his knotty, edge of delirium worldview. He mixes opulent landscapes with handheld closeness, and celebrates Justine as being ready for the end of the world where Claire is panicked. Cinematic grandness here is a gateway to intimate cruelty, and the personal and the universal feel interconnected, as if Justine willed worlds to collide just to put an end to Claire’s ascendancy. That’s a supreme act of will, as is von Trier turning melodrama into a roiling psychological invocation.