Kirsten Dunst’s dimple-pointed smile lights up the opening scenes of Melancholia. She exudes such happiness that we don’t suspect an impending cosmic catastrophe, though we do begin to sense that she feigns happiness for the benefit of others.
Director Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic new drama hits us with a number of anachronisms right from the start: Why is the music so dramatic while the setting is so serene; why is Justine’s (Dunst) wedding so New England while her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) seems like he’s from the sticks; why is her father so jovial and drunk while her mother is a defensive cow?
Justine’s wedding is a grandiose occasion with much reason for joviality to be sure, but the air potently vibrates with strange tension. Justine and her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), provide a foundation for that tension, appearing to be close, but standing at opposite poles in their personalities and family roles. They become a platform for Von Trier to develop the other characters and explore social interactions.
While Justine behaves according to her moods, Claire tries to maintain a constant demeanor, though she often appears visibly shaken by the events around her. Justine’s tendency to forego certain niceties causes Claire, a consummate planner, to say on at least two occasions that she hates Justine. Meanwhile, Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), has no problem telling Justine—or her mother, for that matter—to shape up because the wedding is costing him a fortune.
The wedding becomes more unbearable as we begin to understand that this family has deep, unsolvable problems. They have history, hidden secrets, commitments made and broken—suddenly the tension between them has caught up with the dire soundtrack.
Justine descends further into melancholy, a state painted for us by Wagnerian symphonies and serene cinematography. We suspect that Von Trier has much more to reveal, and he’s demonstrating to us that, if we’re patient, the wait will pay off.
The sisters’ differences become more apparent when we learn, in the second half of the film, that a distant planet named Melancholia has changed paths, putting it in line with the Earth’s orbit.
The film zooms in on Justine, Claire, John, and Claire and John’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr)—four characters who carry the weight of the doomed world.
Justine becomes sedate. Gone is the mask of her shining dimples; in its place: defeat and relinquished control. Claire panics, running around like a headless chicken, dragging poor Leo with her as she tries to find a place of safety. John remains confident: “Melancholia will go right by us, and it will be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen,” he says.
These four characters’ actions throughout the film keep us suspended in a purgatory, not committing to whether or not we believe the Earth will be destroyed, nor how we should deal with it. The sisters—as opposites—do, however, present us with a choice: Accept fate, or live in fear until the very end.
Lars von Trier
With Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland