Melancholia is a planet headed towards Earth that will cause our extinction in this classic by perennial provocateur Lars von Trier.
Melancholia is very simple on paper. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beautiful rural home. All the while, the understanding that a planet, called Melancholia, is heading towards Earth (and will thus end humanity) weighs heavy on Justine and Claire’s minds, and prevents them from enjoying what should be a wonderful occasion. Aesthetically, it’s a very striking film. Like Antichrist (2009), it opens with small, picturesque slow-motion snippets backed by classical music, and here they effectively depict the world ending for the film’s main characters. Throughout the film, von Trier cuts to celestial images to remind us of the impending doom, and that the micro is married with the macro. There is a lot of handheld camera use; many of the shots at the wedding look like they could be from Succession. It’s intimate and not at all ornate.
One of von Trier’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to nurture excellent performances in actors playing challenging roles, with Emily Watson’s in Breaking the Waves and Björk’s in Dancer in the Dark being some of the greatest prior. There isn’t a bad performance in Melancholia, but the clear standout is our lead, Kirsten Dunst. Justine (whose name evokes the eponymous Marquis de Sade character) suffers from depression, and her condition becomes progressively debilitating. What’s the point in getting married today if we’re all going to be dead in a few days?
As somebody who has never had depression, it’s difficult for me to confirm the authenticity of Melancholia’s depiction of Justine’s condition (and it’s obviously a different experience for everyone), though her lethargy and lack of histrionics keep the film grounded. Von Trier smartly throws us in in medias res, electing not to provide any backstory for Justine’s state, mirroring our relationship with it in real life, particularly in somebody you don’t know well. It may seem irrational (everyone at the wedding expects this to be the happiest time of Justine’s life) but it exists, it hurts people and backstory is irrelevant. This is a very compassionate film, and Dunst and von Trier have cited their own experiences with depression in the late 2000s as inspiration.
When we are introduced to Justine, she is in the limo with her fiancé, and the driver, offscreen, can’t get it around a kink in the road. This appears to be the extent of her problems, and, despite her stress, it’s a funny scenario. A few minutes later, we see the young couple at a beautiful castle, surrounded by loved ones and dining on fine food. To the outside observer, you’d think that Justine would be happy. But depression doesn’t discriminate between the privileged and unprivileged. And what good is all this material wealth if we’re about to be reduced to dust before the honeymoon is over?
The second half focuses more on Claire, who obviously lacks Justine’s apathy, and is consumed by fear of Melancholia hitting Earth, while her husband is keen to assure her (either from his own conjecture, or just to pacify her) that the rogue planet is actually travelling away from Earth. Both Claire and husband John are dead set in their assessment of what is coming. Is there allegorical meaning here? Is this conflict of views meant to represent belief in and denial of climate change, perhaps? Maybe. John is stoic and unconcerned, while Claire is utterly terrified by what she believes is about to happen. Like her sister, she is consumed by her own personal fixation.
Melancholia is a divisive film – and von Trier’s hilarious antics at Cannes in 2011 (earning him a seven-year ban) didn’t necessarily help its image. Its critics are quick to call it ‘slow’, ‘boring’ and ‘self-indulgent’ but I found it enthralling. The performances are outstanding and its depiction of depression is almost unprecedented in cinema in its rawness.
Melancholia will be screened in multiple UK cinemas (also in limited 35mm) by Curzon from 1 September 2023, with previews from 25 August, as part of their Enduring Provocations: The Films of Lars Von Trier retrospective. The film is also now available to watch on digital and on demand. Watch Melancholia!