In a typically Von Trier fashion, Melancholia begins by informing us that we’re about to witness “Part One: Justine”. Separated into two parts only because of a perspective shift from Justine to her sister Claire halfway through, this smug, unnecessary signposting does well to forbode two hours of self-satisfied spectacle weaving. Yes, it’s all very beautiful, but you can never quite shake the feeling that the director is more about cinematic point-scoring than storytelling.
So, we open on the wedding day of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) – a bright young bride who, it doesn’t take long for us to realise, is also suffering from terrible depression. Her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) , her sister (Charlotte Gainsborg), her father (John Hurt) and the guests all watch her carefully over tinkling champagne glasses as she slouches from well-wisher to well-wisher, sometimes with a glowing grin on her face, sometimes seemingly unaware of their presence entirely. Every so often, desperate for a break from the revelry, she wees on a golf-course, or has a bath. That seems to help. The pressure of the day and the new life she is to embark upon is worsened by a mother who hates the institution of marriage entirely, a boss who is determined to get work out of her even on the day of her wedding and a husband who, though obviously loving, cannot seem to quite understand the violent mood-swings peeking from beneath her dragging veil. All of this would be quite enough to deal with, but hanging above the assembled party is a planet, Melancholia, ever-approaching and barely avoiding direct contact with planet Earth. Wait, it will barely avoid direct contact, right?
And so it is that we descend into Von Trier’s bleak world of hanging deadlines, of the fallibility of earthly promises and of our own ultimate powerlessness over basically anything at all. Both Dunst and Gainsbourg sparkle as two sisters caught between passionate love and hatred for one-another, with Justine entirely dependent on her sister for survival and Claire always aware of her responsibilities as caregiver. As we move into her ‘part’ of the story, and begin to sketch in the details of her life with her husband (Keifer Sutherland) and young son Leo (Cameron Spurr), Gainsbourg really comes into her own; struggling with personal anxieties as well as shouldering those of others, eyes permanently tilted worriedly to the unwelcome planet that lies in wait of the inevitable climax. Playing her increasingly hysterical part with a stark rawness and honesty that prevents the entire outfit from sliding into melodrama, Gainsbourg always manages to keep us on Claire’s side even as her panic takes over completely. By contrast, Dunst turns her natural shine (so suited to cheerleading uniforms and getting off with Tobey Maguire) inwards, glowering at a world already lost with an air of one who knows it was never worth fighting for in the first place. They’re both very good, is what I’m trying to say, so well done them.
So what’s the problem? The thing is, there is something innately irritating about Melancholia; a film that seems bent on making you gratefully miserable through Really Classy contrived scenario after Really Classy contrived scenario. The Wedding section meanders, never really building any real tension or atmosphere (unfavourable comparisons to Festen are sadly unavoidable), and the sudden switch to life post-wedding makes you feel as though Von Trier just really fancied doing an elaborate character set-up where everyone had to wear dramatic clothing. Many characters seem under-developed and their decisions seem unlikely – Claire’s husband and the two girls’ mother both spring to mind as characters written purely to Have Controversial Opinions – and the overarching point, which seems to be ‘wouldn’t it be rubbish if the world ended?’ feels, bizarrely, rather anti-climactic after two hours of slow-motion running, respectable nudity and significant pans across horses. That said, Melancholia is beautifully shot throughout; a feast for the eyes if nothing else and though it might leave you wondering what the point of it all was, at least you can kid yourself that that was Von Trier’s intention all along.