AFI FEST Review: ‘Melancholia’ Brings Beauty to the End of the World

By  · Published on November 8th, 2011

R.E.M. may have sang about the end of the world as we know it, but Lars von Trier brings that idea to the big screen in his film Melancholia, which deals with the heavy issue of depression (played with palpable despair and frustration by Kristen Dunst) in the face of a looming planet that threatens to end all life on earth. The film begins with a near ten-minute-long, slow-motion sequence focusing on foreboding images (which look almost like paintings) that are overtaken by darkness. The heavy (and at times jarring) soundtrack of the film, featuring deep violins and strings, is established during this sequence, and it strikes up throughout the film when things begin to take a more menacing turn.

The film is split into two parts, the first focusing on Justine (Dunst) and her grand wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), while the second focuses on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), and how she tries to hold her family together in the face of something that would cause depression (and utter fear) in almost anyone – the sudden and unstoppable end of life. Although the first part may seem a bit confusing, as von Trier brings us right into the story and does little to fill in the gaps, it becomes clear quickly that Justine is only trying to play the part of the happy bride, but does not fully have it in her. Despite pressure from her family and even her employer, Justine cannot seem to connect with what is going on around her. This feeling of being overwhelmed is not uncommon for a bride, but Dunst and von Trier depict it in the disjointed way a person suffering from depression would see and experience things.

Much is said and shown of the lavish country club and golf course grounds owned by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) where Justine’s reception is held. While Justine does not seem to care where she is, John cannot stop himself from constantly bringing it up and, as Justine moves across the grounds throughout the evening, you can see just how vast the property is. The lingering importance of nature is woven throughout the film as a nod towards the life that surrounds us all – the same life that is about to be snuffed out for our characters.

Even though each sister is given their own section of the film, they bleed into each other’s portions and lives as family naturally does. As the narrative shifts its focus from Justine to Claire, we move forward in time to find Justine deeper in her depression and Claire’s family wrapped up in a planet named Melancholia that may (or may not) collide with earth. John (who dabbles in astrology) is convinced the planet will pass right by Earth, making it a spectacular solar event, while Claire is less convinced and, despite John’s reprimands and reassurance, cannot help herself from going online to see what others are saying about it. Claire and John’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr) seems to straddle the line between his two parents, looking through the telescope with the same excitement as his father while also looking up the planet’s trajectory online like his mother.

As the planet draws closer, we witness how each person deals with the looming consequences – from a father who may have miscalculated, a mother trying to protect her son, and a young woman trying to understand why losing a world she cannot connect with would be such a tragedy. These various points of view are acted with such honesty by this talented cast, that they work to make you think about your own loved ones and how you would react in the face of something tragic that you could not control or change.

Melancholia tackles some daunting topics with striking beauty and seems to constantly remind its audience how fragile life truly is. The almost stripped down and near-quiet final moments are hauntingly powerful as they cause you to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts and fears.

The Upside: The performances and look of the film will stay with you long after the fate of Melancholia is revealed. Almost like a moving picture book, the striking images stand well on their own and are made only more powerful when laced together.

The Downside: The film is not a standard narrative and Justine’s portion could be too confusing and seemingly random to draw everyone in to the bigger idea of the story from the onset.

On the Side: The images seen at the beginning of the film are recalled throughout as versions of those images come true like predictions on a Tarot card. Von Trier subtly laces aspects from these images throughout the narrative with energy from one’s fingers to the power lines drifting into the air or a horse falling (or being driven) to the ground making you want to watch the first sequence again as soon as the film ends.