Melancholia commences with a symphony, not just of sound but of images. The dead stare of a young woman framed by small birds falling around her. The cosmic grandeur of the earth in space. A lush lawn with a perfectly manicured row of trees and a sun dial that looks like a Salvador Dali painting come to life. Every scene shares the same sense of moving, breathing art, advancing in deliberate, extreme slow-motion, as if in sync with the speed of the earth’s rotation, all set to a booming classical score. None of this should surprise Lars Von Trier fans familiar with the director’s arresting visual style. The surreal beauty of Trier’s Melancholia opening continues throughout the film, which is portioned into two parts, or more specifically sisters. Part one: Justine. Part two: Claire.
Part one begins with a joyous and somewhat comical occasion, the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). On the way to their party, the blissful newlyweds are delayed when their driver can’t maneuver the white stretch limo through a curve in the country road. Laughing, Michael and Justine take turns trying to navigate the corner themselves, and ultimately arrive over two hours late, on foot, to the party -- at a luxurious estate owned by Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). It soon becomes evident that a lurking melancholy threatens their happiness and that Justine, though lovely and charming, is ill, most likely suffering from bipolar disorder. She frequently disappears and delays the reception, as when she decides to take a bath when it’s time to cut the wedding cake. It doesn’t help (though it’s amusing) that her spoon-stealing father (John Hurt) insults her “domineering” mother in his toast. Not to be outdone, their mother (Charlotte Rampling) parries with a speech about the futility of marriage and tells Justine to “enjoy it while it lasts.”
Part two picks up post-wedding disaster as a very depleted, sick Justine arrives back at the estate where Claire cares for her. At the same time we learn that the planet Melancholia is on, according to some scientists, a crash course with Earth. This doomsday prediction has Claire more than a bit anxious, especially with the blue-and-white planet ominously hovering on the horizon. In her sullen state Justine comforts her sister by assuring her, “The Earth is evil ... nobody will miss it.”
Melancholia floats in an air of supernatural malaise and tension, a melancholy mirrored in everything and everyone. With Oscar-worthy brilliance, Dunst embraces Justine’s fragmented soul -- simultaneously full of effervescence and dark despair. Alexander Skarsgard as the desperately-in-love yet defeated husband, and Gainsbourg the stoic yet strained sister, are equally poignant. The remaining supporting cast from Sutherland to Hurt all play their parts potently and with perfect pitch.
And it’s all as gorgeously profound as the opening. The film is also thought-provoking. Is Melancholia a metaphor for manic depression? A commentary on existence? Both minute and grand, human and ethereal, Melancholia is a cinematic symphony that will sweep you away in its rare atmosphere.