I suffer from motion sickness and it’s a big compliment to the movie that I stuck with it till the end despite the nausea-inducing hand-held camerawork. It was like a film equivalent of driving down a winding mountain road – you get beautiful views but feel rather queasy by the end of it all. I coped by glancing away from the screen occasionally and silently praised the cameraman whenever he managed to hold the shot.
Melancholia begins with the destruction of Earth, after it collides with a rogue planet that strays into our solar system. As we watch the planets perform their dance of death in space, the film cuts away to a series of puzzling but beautiful and hypnotic slow-motion images, including the one above of Kirsten Dunst lying in a lily pond like some modern-day Ophelia. Meanwhile, the lush romantic prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde soars over it all, an unusual choice to soundtrack the end of the world. All in all, it’s definitely one of the most memorable openings to film I’ve ever seen. Another reason to love it is… no shaky cam in sight!
From then on the movie is divided into two parts. In the first one we meet Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman who is running late to her own wedding reception at her sister’s lavish country estate. At first she seems like a typical giddy newly-wed, but as the reception goes on it becomes clear that Justine’s happy smiles are a desperate facade hiding a major depression, and that her family either pretend it’s not there or think that she should just hide it for the sake of her bland but doting husband (Alexander Skarsgård). All sorts of family tensions rise and Justine’s fragile mental balance spins out of control. This part of the film is shot in warm golden tones, and features some quality actors in supporting roles (Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård).
The second part of the film is mostly focused on Justine’s older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who ends up looking after Justine when her depression flings her into a near-catatonic state; she has no energy even to wash herself and her favourite food tastes like ashes. Claire has a need for control and organising, and is used to being in charge, but the sisters’ roles are transformed as the rogue planet Melancholia comes closer and closer to Earth. Claire, who has a little son with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), is frantic with worry and then despair when it becomes clear that death is imminent. Justine, who’s felt a strange pull towards the planet ever since she’s spotted it earlier in the film, is eerily calm and even welcoming of the end of the world – the Earth is evil, she tells her sister, no one will grieve for it.
Melancholia is directed by Lars von Trier, whose Dancer in The Dark provoked in me the most visceral reaction of hatred and fury I’ve ever felt towards a movie. Still, I can’t argue the fact that it had stuck with me, and so did this movie, though for more benevolent reasons. It’s often beautiful and poetic, sometimes tedious, but definitely original and memorable, with an unforgettable opening and an ending that is both visually stunning and emotionally devastating. Dunst gives the best performance of her career, and Gainsbourg is equally as good.