I arrived late to Melancholia as a planet collided with the Earth on the humble Cinema du Parc screen. The impact reverberated across the atmosphere as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Prelude hit a sublime crescendo. A second montage followed, and another. Yes, I smiled to myself, another pretentious art piece to cheerfully rip apart.
Two hours later, dead silence hovered over the theatre. My companions and I sat stone still. “We should have gone to see the Muppets,” my friend mumbled (having just placed a non-refundable deposit on her wedding reception).
Kirsten Dunst plays bride Justine opposite groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), married in an ornate late-night wedding in the country. It’s all best-day-of-my-life smiles, until the mandatory family embarrassment.
Of course, the sensible Justine runs away in a golf cart. Cue Wagner. Lights suffuse the scene in gold as the cart rattles away, its chilling aloneness heightened in the empty field. Justine dismounts, squats in the grass, and pees.
That’s right. She pees and looks to the sky through seductive half-closed eyes (…must Dunst always look hammered?).
I recount this simply because the strangeness of the scene so perfectly captures the tone of the film— a solitary bride relieving herself on a golf field cast in gold, her dress splayed across the grass, music crescendoing to ineffable heights as she looks on a foreboding night-time sky. How I wanted to hate it, but goddamn, it was enthralling.
Turns out this Crest commercial candidate is, in fact, the polar opposite of happiness, and not with your run-of-the-mill St. John’s Wort depression. It’s the depression of a carefully prepared meatloaf that tastes like ashes, of lacking the strength to get in a bath, of licking jam off fingers for breakfast, of staring vacantly instead of throwing the bouquet. Dunst performs it perfectly, though it’s difficult to account for her psychic flashes. Something strange and divine pervades Justine’s sadness—an unaccountable knowingness, a dark wisdom. This is what life really is under it all, director Lars von Trier seems to say. This is the real mustard, folks—she knows things.
In part two, we learn that the aptly named planet Melancholia is destined to pass dangerously close to Earth. Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), along with her asshole husband (Kiefer Sutherland), young son (Cameron Spurr) and Justine—in the throes of a full-blown depressive breakdown—wait anxiously in the country for Melancholia to pass. If Justine embodies depression, then Claire (superbly acted by Gainsbourg) is the living incarnation of anxiety. This is despair at its best and most pathetic.
And beautiful. Trier presents images in haunting juxtaposition. Justine lies naked on a rock, surprisingly voluptuous breasts exposed to the sky, and gives the planet those Dunstian drunk eyes. Yarn weaves around her feet as she struggles across the field in her wedding dress. She floats in the water, a tragic Ophelia clutching a bouquet and drifting downstream. A black horse collapses to the ground, birds swarm the screen, hail plummets to the Earth. (Take note, Malick, the absence of dinosaurs and gratuitous fetus voice-overs). I’m not a fan of purely aesthetic visuals, but the strangeness of these images is somehow redeeming.
Evidently it’s not an uplifting film, and there is not much plot to carry the second half, evidenced by my neighbor’s compulsive watch-checking. I could hear the monologue running through his head. “Aw, come on. Isn’t the planet going to hit yet? How about now? Now?” It’s a long Wagner-filled trudge to the end of the world, true enough, but well worth it for the breathtaking impact.
Avoid if engaged.