Melancholia begins with a series of slow motion, ethereal scenes of an apocalypse enveloping the main characters. It is one of the most striking openings you’ll see in a cinema this year, or any other. A ghostly bride is imprisoned by grey flowing threads shackling her ankles. A young boy is cradled by his mother as their feet sink and merge into a golf course like quicksand. A black horse collapses in on itself in front of our very eyes.
Director Lars Von Trier sets the tone for this unusual film, a beguiling mix of disaster movie ala Deep Impact and a psychological drama by Ingmar Bergman. The film is set in a large country house in picturesque grounds by the sea. Guests are gathered together for the wedding rehearsal of a young couple, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).
Quickly the film morphs into Festen territory at the rehearsal, as cracks begin to show in the family. Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) decries her disgust for marriage, and the presence of her ex-husband (John Hurt) does little to help matters. Meanwhile John and Claire struggle to understand Justine’s erratic mood swings in the midst of their precious arrangements. Justine, we learn is descending into a deep depression, yet finds an odd kinship with an encroaching pale blue planet, aptly titled Melancholia.
This enigmatic, ominous planet occupies a shadowy presence in the film. As Justine’s condition worsens, Melancholia journeys nearer to it’s collision with earth. It is an excellent, effective metaphor for depression, a silent force that takes hold over the victim. Some viewers have argued that Melancholia is a vacuous exercise in prettiness, a work of self indulgence by Von Trier. Yet when you take into account Von Trier’s own vocal struggle with depression, it seems more likely that the elegant, lush visuals only serve to cushion the rawness of Von Trier’s message. Like a Morrissey lyric, Melancholia coats the razor sharp bitterness with beauty.
At first I had my reservations in Dunst’s abilities in conveying such a complex emotional state. However, she has an icy, distant quality which lends itself surprisingly well to a condition that is often elusive and difficult to gage on the surface. The supporting cast are all very good, a mixture of narcissism and misunderstanding permeating through the characters. Gainsbourg in particular radiates existential fret and sisterly anxiety to great effect.