At first it’s a weird mix of the universe-history sections of Tree of Life with the shaky-cam family drama of Rachel Getting Married, but then it starts to come together. Oh actually before that is one of Von Trier’s typically outstanding opening sequences (think the sex/death of Antichrist and the musical watercolors of Dancer in the Dark). Here he uses the extreme slow-motion style of Antichrist, creating motion portraits of what seem like Justine’s depressive dreams, with stylised versions of images we’ll see later: Claire’s yard, the new planet above Earth, pictures from art books.
Part 1: Justine
Kirsten Dunst (last seen in Marie-Antoinette, again playing spoiled and detached) just married Michael (Alexander “son of Stellan” Skarsgard), heads to the lavish reception thrown by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg of Antichrist; has any other Von Trier lead actress ever returned to work with him again?) and husband Kiefer Sutherland at his Marienbad-like estate. But despite the smiles in public, Justine keeps returning to her ultra-depressive funk, disappearing outside or to other rooms for long periods, leaving the guests waiting, much to the frustration of wedding planner Udo Kier (“she’s ruining my wedding”) who dramatically averts his eyes from the bride whenever he passes.
More drama: the girls’ dad John Hurt is pretty reasonable, but their mom Charlotte Rampling couldn’t be more awful. Justine’s employer Stellan is bugging her – at her own wedding reception – for some tagline for a client, sends round-faced new employee Brady Corbett to follow her. Laboriously, Justine makes it through all the stages and events of her wedding reception, but fucks Brady Corbett instead of her groom. I don’t think he finds out (I ran to the restroom) but nobody is happy with her at the end of the night – father and husband leave without her.
Part 2: Claire
Sometime later (the husband and parents are never mentioned again) Justine is having a crisis, summoned to Claire’s house so her sister can take care of her with homemade meatloaf. The world is all excited that a previously unknown planet has appeared from behind the sun and will pass very close to Earth – various conspiracy theorists say the two planets will collide (one of the images we saw at the start of the film). Kiefer is vocally sure that Earth is safe, and Kirsten is silently sure that it’s doomed – Claire is caught between them.
Of course it is doomed, because what better ending to a Lars Von Trier movie than the destruction of the planet, the fiery obliteration of every character we’ve met? Claire superstitiously stocks up on suicide pills and Kiefer scientifically stocks up on generators and candles and fresh water, but when Kiefer realizes that planet Melancholia has doubled back after its fly-by, he sneaks off to the stables with the pills, leaving the sisters and his son to face the end of the world together.
All set at a single location, a rich family detached from the rest of society. Interestingly IMDB says the advertising image that Stellan has assigned to Kirsten is based on a famous painting, “an unflattering portrayal of excess and spiritual emptiness in a mythical land of plenty.” Kirsten is unusually tuned-in to planet Melancholia, and seems to brighten up as it gets closer. Either she’s perversely pleased by the idea of the planet collision or is spiritually in-tune with the planet, or the cosmic intensity of her depression has summoned the planet in the first place.
Things go from bad to worse in ways that never seem to reflect real human behavior. … the confusing structure of Melancholia’s first half exposes Trier’s inability at approximating emotional realism. Justine is believably depressive and damaged, but nothing that happens around her has even a whiff of authenticity, first frame to last. I struggled through the wedding sequence to make sense of it all: how she knew her husband or how well or long they’d known one another; why she had agreed to marry and then why she’d decided to sabotage her wedding; and how all of this could possibly happen in one night. Episodic in the worst way, part one plays like a shrill and repetitive run-on sentence authored by someone who has a clear idea of what he wants to say but hasn’t adequately structured and packaged those ideas.
Trier’s world … seems like a lousy, sad, miserable place. I’m glad he got a chance to blow it up.