Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
Directed by: Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”)
Written by: Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”)
“I’m trudging through this,” moans Justine (Kirsten Dunst) wearily to her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine is talking about her meticulously-planned wedding, owning up to the internal struggle she’s facing, wrestling with crippling depression on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. The same comment, however, could easily be made by the viewer in regard to the confusing, plodding first hour of the movie that focuses on said wedding. Like the art-house answer to “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” the wedding scene in “Melancholia” seems to unfold in real time, doing almost nothing to advance the plot and openly daring the viewer to just move along if they don’t want to stick around while the party full of sad people wraps up at its own leisurely pace. Unlike “Breaking Dawn,” there’s a reason to hang in there.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”), “Melancholia” is the story of two sisters in the days before a planet hurtling through space threatens to smash into the Earth. Divided into two parts, one centered on each sister, the film is haunted by inescapable feeling of dread.
Part one of the movie, “Justine,” is entirely consumed by the aforementioned wedding and is peppered with things like morsels of back story and weird characters and incongruous shots of deep-space nebulae set to swelling Wagner symphonies that are orphaned by the time the second half begins. What’s the deal with Justine’s father (John Hurt) calling every woman “Betty,” or Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and the odd cadence with which he says “onion soup?” Only Lars von Trier knows, and he’s already moved on to part two, “Claire.”
The second half nearly feels like a reward for enduring the first. Set an undetermined time after the wedding, it centers on Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) taking Justine into their home after her depression worsens, all while Claire grows apprehensive as a formerly unknown planet, Melancholia, is five days out from brushing past Earth. It’s intense and full of fear and only a tiny bit of indie abnormality, but most refreshingly its so divorced from the proceedings in part one that it feels like an entirely different movie, as if the first half were little more than deleted scenes from an abandoned plot line tacked on to the beginning.
Kirsten Dunst has never been better, even if she’s playing the well-worn trope of “mentally-unstable woman taken in by her sister and exasperated brother-in-law” and engaging in pretentious mumbo jumbo like basking naked in the woods under the glow of a rouge planet while her sister looks on and the music swells. The heavy-handedness of the message conjures a few eye rolls (Melancholia was hiding behind the sun all this time and is ultimately inescapable, get it?) and the more baffling stretches will be difficult for the average viewer to slog through, but in the end von Trier has crafted a sorrowful piece of sci-fi that you can’t turn away from, no matter how hard it tries to make you.