Danish director Lars von Trier’s (Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark) latest stage-y drama is the antithesis of the Roland Emmerich apocalypse movie, for good or ill. Kirsten Dunst stars as Juliet, a new bride who, much like the titular planet, destroys most everything in her path. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The opening of Melancholia is also its ending, only more memorable and gorgeous. We are treated to a stunning montage of tableaux set to a Wagner symphony. Juliet near-swoons as dead birds fall around her. Juliet’s sister Claire (von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg) clutches her son to her chest as she tries to run away. A horse collapses in slow motion. We see Melancholia slowly approach Venus, almost colliding, but the music swells and this moment of would-be suspense seems impossibly romantic, as if two celestial bodies are moving in for a kiss.
So, with the inevitable ending out of the way, what is Melancholia really about, if not the end of the world?
After being treated to such a promising beginning, what follows next is at heart a very strangely-paced family drama. We meet Juliet on her wedding day, running late for the reception. First impressions of Juliet and her groom are positive. Very attractive — the groom is True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard, after all — and rich and happy. The happy part is an illusion as we soon learn that Juliet is clinically depressed and is the cause of much embarrassment for her family, especially her uptight older sister. Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) have spared no expense to rent out a gorgeous chateau for Juliet’s big day and are appalled that the bride isn’t having a good time.
To say that Juliet suffers from melancholia would be understating the real suffering of depression. Kirsten Dunst has played sad rich girls before (Marie Antoinette; The Virgin Suicides) but in Melancholia she really nails it. Juliet moves in and out of her reception like a wounded animal, constantly reassuring her naive groom and critical sister that she’s happy. The whole event seems like a terrible anxiety dream. One minute, Juliet is being toasted, the next she’s sleeping with a guest. She retires to her room to take a bath while everyone awkwardly waits for her to cut the cake downstairs. Her parents argue. Udo Kier has a cameo as a prissy wedding planner who averts his eyes from the rude bride.
Both Dunst and von Trier (Antichrist, The Dreamers) have publicly discussed their struggles with depression and the rawness of its portrayal is about the only genuine thing about Melancholia. Is it any surprise that Juliet is the first to remark on the approach of Melancholia? She seems to know something terrible that her family cannot see. Not yet, anyway.
View the slightly NSFW trailer. Mild, tasteful Kirsten Dunst nudity.
The second hour of the movie is the more conventional end-times story, told from Claire’s perspective. After watching Juliet alienate most everyone she knows, getting to the “good” stuff is a welcome relief. Make no mistake; Lars von Trier’s apocalypse movie is just as implausible as anything in The Day After Tomorrow. Claire grows increasingly worried that Melancholia, a constant presence in the sky, will hit Earth. John, like all of the men in this film, attempts to take care of their difficult women but never really understand them. John’s words of reassurance are simply “I’m a scientist.” Oh. Okay, then. Claire and John are so rich, they stay on at the magnificent chateau with their young son and Juliet, near-catatonic after her failed marriage.
Juliet seems to grow more alive as Melancholia nears. It’s as if her most fatalistic daydream is coming true. Part of me wondered if the planet existed outside of Juliet’s mind, but some lip service to shoddy science seemed to suggest otherwise. (Claire fake-Googles “Melancholia” and the only hit for the heretofore unseen planet that is supposed to obliterate Earth in two days is a picture of the planet’s orbit. Which looks like a drunk’s attempt at filigree.) Claire and John are so rich they have stables and a butler, but no TV or radio. I certainly wasn’t expecting scenes of failing infrastructure, looting, and manic preachers, but some hint that these people don’t exist in a vacuum would have helped.
So if this isn’t really about the end of the world, what is Melancholia about? The end of relationships might be suggested by the first half at the wedding, but trying to echo that sentiment on a worldwide scale falters when the characters are largely distant. Claire comes undone as her world is ending and she’s scared for her son. Juliet, who is incapable of love, seems to mock her sister for daring to think there’s anything worth remembering or celebrating on our lonely and evil little planet. While it was refreshing to see the end of the world from the perspective of people not trying to save it, watching the lead character literally bathe in Earth’s impending doom was extremely beautiful but unsatisfying. Melancholia is as poignant and devastating as the title suggests. It’s a visual masterpiece with strong female leads in Dunst and Gainsbourg. But its nihilistic posturing ultimately renders the movie void of any real impact.
In fact, outside of the usual circles that defend von Trier and his idiotic, attention-seeking soundbites, the main thing people will remember Melancholia for is its unusual release. Melancholia was available to rent through some cable providers for a month prior to its theatrical release. It’s how I watched it and while those lush opening scenes would’ve been infinitely more bombastic on the big screen, the case for video-on-demand is strong. I live in New York, so of course Melancholia will come to my local arthouse theater, but that’s not true everywhere. However, I live in New York, so movie theaters are extra-crowded with jerks on cell phones (and bonus bedbugs!) Let the New Yorker film critic call me a sinner for watching Melancholia in my living room for less than the cost of a standard ticket. Most movies aren’t Event Cinema. Will I still spend $25 to see The Hobbit on an IMAX screen with my nerdiest friends? Of course. Melancholia is hardly the beginning of the end of moviegoing, but it’s surely further heralding an age where consumers dictate how content is distributed.
Melancholia opens in select theaters on November 11.