The opening scene in ‘Melancholia’ is adorably playful. Newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård ) try to get their limo unstuck and blissfully chuckle at their inability to do so. It’s two beautiful people, who are clearly in love, enjoying their wedding day. What could go wrong? The answer is; absolutely everything. ‘Melancholia’ is a rousing metaphor for depression. It is perhaps the greatest cinematic illustration of mental illness to date. The film starts with a portrayal of romance and loveliness and steadily falls into gloom and catastrophe. The film’s timeline may be likened to that of a fatal sickness.
Justine is seemingly floating through a fairy tale existence. She is the blushing bride in a lavish wedding, planned meticulously by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and paid for by her stern brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). During the reception her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård) announces that she has been promoted to Art Director while her new husband declares himself the “luckiest man in the world”. Yet as the night progresses, it seems that something just isn’t right about Justine. She seems exhausted and disheartened. When Michael takes her aside and shows her a plot of land he has found for her, with trees for when she “feels sad”, Justine is largely uninterested.
She tries desperately to communicate with someone in her family. Claire has exhausted every in her power to make her sister happy and when she sees that it hasn’t worked, she informs her “I hate you so much sometimes”. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) provides marital advice in the form of “enjoy it while it lasts” while her father (John Hurt) drunkenly avoids her. By the end of the evening she is alone with only her thoughts. This proves disastrous during the second part of the film dedicated to Claire and the impending destruction of earth.
Act II of ‘Melancholia’ focuses on a panicked Claire and skeptical John as they react to the threat of a mysterious ‘fly-by” planet. They do so while taking care of a now incapacitated Justine. Gainsbourg’s powerful acting is no surprise but Sutherland, demonstrates greater range. John puts up a severe façade while tolerating his wife’s unyielding devotion to her sister. He’s a major reason the last act will not be easily forgotten.
The film is a grand achievement and arguably Von Trier’s best. When the film premiered at Cannes this year, Dunst was rightly awarded Best Actress and Von Trier’s achievement was clouded by his statements about Nazis. This tarnished the breathtaking film’s reception and led the famously reclusive director to release a statement that he world no longer release statements. Yet the massively positive reception that the film has received should cause the controversy to dissipate.