Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsborough, Kiefer Sutherland
It probably says a lot about Lars von Trier as a filmmaker and/or person that he begins his tale of the apocalypse by showing that the earth will ultimately be destroyed, thereby removing any underlying sense of hope that might otherwise have marked the story. And yet, despite that, Melancholia may very well go down as one of von Trier's most light hearted films. Although perhaps not as challenging nor as provocative as some of his other recent work, it is nevertheless an entirely captivating and fascinating film.
Melancholia is split into two parts, each named for one of the sisters who act as the film's protagonists. The first part is named for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and takes place at her wedding reception at the massive estate of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsborough), and brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The reception is fraught with tension as Justine and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), have arrived late to the reception, Justine's divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) are openly feuding, Justine's mother is vocal in her disapproval of the marriage and, in fact, the idea of marriage ("Enjoy it while it lasts," she tells them in her toast), and Justine's increasingly alienating behaviour not only enrages the wedding planner (Udo Kier) to the point where he can't even bring himself to look at her, but it also brings her marriage to a halt before it even really gets started. She senses something, something to do with a star that seems to burn brighter than normal, and it brings her to despair, though she cannot make the people around her understand why.
In part two, named for Claire, the source of Justine's uneasiness has become clear: there is a massive rogue planet called Melancholia on a collision course with earth - though scientists optimistically hope that Earth will merely experience a "fly by" with the Melancholia. While Claire is anxious about the planet, John tries to convince her that the so-called "dance of death" between Earth and Melancholia is just fear-mongering, and enthusiastically awaits the close encounter with the other planet. Justine, meanwhile, begins the chapter massively depressed and then is drawn out of it, growing calmer and more rational at the same rate that Claire seems to be falling apart. Justine accepts their fate and, in doing so, reverses the roles that she and Claire have always played.
The performances by Dunst and Gainsborough complement each other so beautifully that it's difficult to consider one without the other. Claire is the sensible one, the caretaker firmly grounded in reality. But, while Justine is flaky and the less dependable of the two, she's not necessarily "weaker;" her strengths just aren't terribly compatible with life as we know it. She's perfectly suited to deal with a reality in which Earth is on the verge of destruction, whereas Claire can't bring herself to accept it. Towards the end of the film, in what is perhaps its best scene, the sisters have a frank conversation about what will happen, in which Justince demonstrates that she's made peace with their fate and calmly lays out the things she knows to be true (such as that Earth will not be missed and that life on Earth is evil), while Claire demonstrates her inability to wrap her head around the planet's imminent destruction, asking simply where her son, Leo, will grow up. Claire's unwillingness to accept the truth (going so far as to attempt to run away from the estate, as if that might solve the problem) forces Justine to take charge and the transition occurs so smoothly that it's barely noticeable.
von Trier is a filmmaker that I'm more familiar with by reputation than experience, as many of his films (particularly Anti-Christ) have always sounded just a little too daunting and intense, but Melancholia makes me want to rectify that. From the darkly beautiful and operatic prologue, in which von Trier shows the entire story's trajectory, including the Earth's destruction, straight through to the nightmarish ending, Melancholia had me absolutely riveted. There are still a number of films I have left to see this year, but I have a hard time imagining that Melancholia won't be included in my year end best list.