With lavish cinematography and twisted family dynamics that put 2017’s “mother!” to shame, “Melancholia” is a film so precisely crafted that it feels not so much a movie but an actual living, breathing entity. Kirsten Dunst manages to radiate raw emotion while her character Justine is buried deep in depression, and director Lars von Trier blends close-ups with innovative birds-eye shots, feeling like an objective portrait as well as an intimate home movie of Dunst’s decaying family. The fact that the characters in the “Melancholia” universe universe evoke such a strong reaction in us is nothing short of amazing, especially considering their world is about to end.
The film takes place in two chapters, named after the quarreling sisters at the heart of the movie: Justine and Carrie. Justine’s chapter focuses on her wedding, or rather, failed wedding. Her dad Dexter (John Hurt) is loving but inappropriate, her mom Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is curt and unfiltered, and her sleazy boss Jack (Stellen Skarsgard) announces her promotion at the reception, effectively making what should be the best day of her life entirely about work. She’s deeply depressed, barely managing to keep a small grin on her face as she looks for every possible opportunity to escape.
Their misdeeds aren’t the seeds for Justine’s depression, nor are the awkward exchanges with her groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Justine’s mental bleakness feels like it’s in frequency with an upcoming global catastrophe. The silly events of her life are completely trivial, as this impending danger she cannot see, touch or experience somehow encroaches her space every second. Von Trier already told us what this danger was before his film even started. We just process the explicit ramifications of it in the second chapter, focusing on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her accomplished husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).
John proclaims to be a man of science and reason, regularly clocking in with his telescope to make sure Earth stays out of the path of the rogue planet, Melancholia. Claire wants to buy into John’s reason but is emotionally bankrupt, she just knows something must be wrong. And when Justine proudly declares the Earth will end and that is a good thing, Claire grapples with her emotions, trying not to let her confused hatred for her sister triumph over her remaining light of day.
Having a doomsday movie where the world actually ends is risky but has been done before. “Melancholia” is unique not for obliterating its earth, but giving us a character who simply could care less. The movie makes us question our natural instincts as humans, whether the will to survive or the desire to not be alone are simply overrated Darwinian devices.
Even the need to be a good parent is questioned, as Justine, Claire, and her young son build a flimsy teepee-like structure to quell the child’s fears. Unknowingly dying certainly trumps apprehensively dying with regret, but what’s interesting about the sequence is that Claire realizes there is no difference between accepting one’s doom and fighting back against it. It’s the closest thing you’ll see to nihilism and optimism getting along in contemporary culture.
What’s even sadder, and a testament to the film’s greatness, is that despite knowing exactly how this will turn out, we still find ourselves rooting for Justine and Carrie to survive. That the film might end with them discovering some sort of spaceship buried in the brush and they can jettison to safety before Melancholia hits. How remarkable that a film rooted in apathy and depression is able to make us care so much.