Melancholia is Lars Von Trier’s lush, epic ode to the complexity of human life and the suffering that, he believes, must inherently accompany it. The film establishes a series of seemingly firm dichotomies—life versus death, good versus evil, logic versus chaos—only to subvert them and demonstrate the irrelevancy of their distinction. The characters are forced to find a calm and a power in living under the looming threat of apocalypse, and an acceptance in returning to nothing. Through the exploration of the physical and emotional lives of his two heroines, sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Von Trier constructs a nuanced and transcendental study of the anatomy of depression in all of its manifestations.
The film begins with an astoundingly beautiful prologue. A series of darkly stylized images from the film are compiled in slow motion and set to music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. A horse falls to the ground in the midst of a thunder storm, Claire sinks in a swampy golf course carrying her son in her arms, and Justine stares off emotionlessly as birds fall from the sky. The tableaus are surreal and dreamlike, until finally, we see the planet Melancholia destroy earth. Our planet’s death is foretold before we’ve even seen the film’s title. The rest of the film is split into two acts: the first belonging to Justine, the second to Claire.
Justine’s first act ostensibly tells the story of her wedding day and the ensuing reception at the lavish home of her sister and brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland). But, ultimately, this act becomes a chronicle of her total emotional breakdown and descent into paralyzing depression on what should be, as her entire family insists on reminding her, the happiest day of her life. Justine slowly transforms herself from the glowing bride into the embodiment of death, paralyzed by depression—the planet Melancholia personified. Her sole objective at her own wedding reception is to destroy everything around her. Through her self-destructive behavior, Justine puts an end to any and all hopes her family had that this day would mark the start of a new life for her. She ends her career, her marriage, and her relationship with her family in a single evening, leaving her in a self-induced and toxic isolation. Her minor explosion foreshadows the Earth’s own impending destruction.
Claire, on the other hand, is life. She is everything that Justine seems incapable of being. She is a bastion of sanity and etiquette, happily married to an extremely wealthy amateur scientist with whom she has a son. For all of Justine’s chaos and darkness, in the first half of the film, Claire is able to respond with the appropriate portion of order and light. However, when faced with the approach of total destruction, Claire’s facade of order and reason crumbles. Claire becomes the crazy, emotionally unstable one. She is left confused and panicked, let down by science, while Justine’s depression has given her an understanding and an intuition that permits her to see beyond this failed experiment of life on Earth. Justine’s sadness permits her a sort of tranquility and acceptance of the impending destruction, a feeling Claire will never be able to achieve.
The film is an emotionally powerful and prolifically moving portrait of humanity and its immense frailty. It explores the subtleties of human reaction and relationships when placed in mortal conflict. But apart from its content, the film is also a visually stunning, perfectly choreographed masterpiece. As such, Melancholia defies expectation. It simply must be seen.