Lars von Trier meets the end of the world. The world loses. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a difficult and weighty proposition—and it’s not your normal movie. I wouldn’t even call it normal von Trier—whatever that even means. My reaction to Melancholia—which I think is probably within shouting distance of a kind of greatness—is equally difficult. I can’t say I like the film. I’m not even sure that it’s possible to like it in any normal sense. But I had a strong, visceral reaction to it and find myself haunted by it in ways I can’t make entirely clear in my own mind. I’m also not sure I want to watch it again, though I feel I’ll be drawn to do so.
This is a long film and a pretty slow one. It commences with a beautiful and disturbing eight-minute sequence—set to the “Prelude” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—that depicts the essence of the rest of the movie in both literal and allegorical terms. The sequence is done in a very formal—even classical—style. It reflects several things—ranging from Last Year at Marienbad (1961) to Millais’ painting of Ophelia—while other aspects are completely its own. For that matter, the overall feeling is unique to Melancholia. Some of the images we will encounter again at the end of the film—though in altered forms. Other images are best thought of as portents and visions of things to come. It’s also possibly all happening inside the mind of Justine (Kirsten Dunst in a fearless performance)—the film suggests as much along the way.
From there the movie goes into “Part One: Justine,” which ostensibly focuses on that character and that’s at least sort of true. The style of the film shifts dramatically at this point, eschewing the formal style for a hand-held camera and an almost cinéma vérité look as it follows Justine’s wedding reception—an incredibly expensive affair put on by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with her sister’s husband Jack’s (Kiefer Sutherland) money (a fact he never lets anyone forget). The mood shifts as well, ranging from the apparent good humor (which might be a form of hysteria in retrospect) of the bride to the first sighting of the planet Melancholia to the bitchy in-fighting of the relatives and guests. Once things start going wrong they go increasingly wrong because we’re watching Justine disintegrate.
The second part of the film is called “Claire” and the cast is basically reduced to Claire, Jack, their son (Cameron Spurr) and Justine. They alternately wait for Melancholia to collide with the Earth and hope it won’t. But the dynamic has changed. Justine is increasingly pulled together by the prospect of impending doom, while Claire falls apart. In fact, her actions start to resemble Justine’s earlier ones. It’s giving nothing away to reveal that the film is going to end with the end of the world, since we already saw that at the beginning. I’m half-inclined to believe that only this little, wholly separate privileged microcosm is destroyed and that the end of the world is more allegorical than literal, despite what we see, but that’s the disturbing and endlessly debatable strength of the film. There is some reason that the place is hard to get into and, for some, nearly impossible to get out of.
The very last section—however you interpret it—returns to a more formal style, which again only increases the visceral nature of what happens. I think part of what I find so haunting and disturbing about the film’s Wagner-soaked finale (hey, if the world ends, it needs the operatic) is in part due to von Trier’s use of the music. Like the opera itself, he keeps moving it to the “Liebestod” (Love Death)—which certainly and literally fits Justine’s embracing of death. Unlike the opera, von Trier never erupts into the “Liebestod” and leaves us uncomfortably hanging. This is strong stuff, but worth it if you’re up to it. Rated R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language.