How does the world end? Cultures throughout time have been intrigued by this question, and by what events will take place. We read our holy books to find answers, but only find ourselves asking more questions. In Melancholia, writer-director Lars Von Trier explores and ponders this question.
The film’s prologue is a collection of images set to rich, beautiful music—the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It’s almost as if Von Trier had closed his eyes while listening to this music and these are the images that flashed before his eyes. But, the images—a moon rising; a bride running and being captured by branches; a bride floating in some body of water; a woman walking through the forest; a boy with a stick—are not that random. Von Trier, in the film’s beginnings, is using the tool of foreshadowing, giving the viewer hints to what is going to happen. This prologue is an invitation. The music chosen is enough to draw the viewer in. Von Trier has set the stage for a beautiful, complex, and apocalyptic narrative.
The story starts with the younger of the two sisters, Justine. We meet Justine and her groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) two hours late to their own reception. As the party unfolds in all the traditional ways, Justine begins to disappear. She explores the property outside, she puts her nephew to bed, she attempts to have a conversation with her anti-marriage mother. The whole time the camera jerks from one angle to the next, as if it is a home videorecording. The fun, light-hearted mood at the beginning of the film begins to slip away.
Every encounter Justine has during the scenes at the reception seems to be a tug of war. While Justine is slipping away, everyone else is desperately trying to pull her toward love, including her new husband Michael. It is here that we are surprised that Kristen Dunst was overlooked by the Academy Awards. This is by far the best role Dunst has portrayed yet. At the reception scenes, almost the first half of the film, we see in Dunst’s eyes life slowly being extinguished. We become more intrigued by Justine and what her story is. The greatest tug of war, and perhaps the more painful, is here in Justine. While her eyes testify to her slipping away, her face is trying to show happiness and joy. Dunst’s performance is gripping and, at the same time, heartbreaking as she makes Justine’s melancholia be very real for the viewer.
Throughout this first half of the film, Justine continues to be drawn to this new star she observes in the sky. The star is actually the planet Melancholia, larger than Earth and headed for collision with Earth. This is the hinge of the film. We have witnessed the emotional end of Justine. Now Von Trier turns his attention to the end of the world.
The second half of the film is devoted to Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire commissions herself to take care of her now depressed sister. Von Trier himself has struggled with depression and it only adds a level of intimacy that contributes to the cinematic excellence that is this film. Again, Dunst’s performance is riveting.
One of the most compelling scenes in this film is when Claire tries to help Justine take a bath. Justine is filled with so much agony that she can barely move. The emotional end (death) has left her physically weak. This scene is shot through a half-open door, somewhat symbolizing the state of humanity. Is the door opening? Or is the door closing? Either way, this scene causes you to catch your breath.
As Claire struggles to take care of her sister, she is wrought with anxiety that the mysterious planet Melancholia is going to bring destruction. She frantically searches the Internet for information. She goes into town and returns with a bottle of pills that she locks away.
During all of this anxiety, Claire’s husband John (exceptionally portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland) is calm and clear-headed. He is obsessed with watching and recording the planet’s progress. He insists the planet is just going to pass by, nothing is going to happen. The whole while, he includes their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) in this obsession.
While Claire becomes so overwhelmed by the planet’s movement, Justine provides perspective: “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. … Life is only on earth, and not for long.” And, it is this that is perhaps is the greatest message of this film. If the earth as we know it is evil, we do not need to grieve for it. The old will pass away and the new will be created. The writer of 2 Peter tells us, “But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (3:13).
Claire will get so overwhelmed that she frankly tries to get her and Leo into town, yet nothing seems to work right. Justine, calm and collected, takes Leo into the woods to find sticks to use to build a magic cave. She becomes the caregiver. She is not as worried about the unfolding events. She doesn’t see the planet collision as a bad thing. It is almost as if she has finally found comfort.
The film’s finale will leave you speechless. It is very appropriate for the end credits to begin scrolling in complete silence.