At her own wedding reception, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is overcome by depression and alienates everyone, including her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and her devoted sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When a new planet, Melancholia, appears in the sky, Justine knows it will destroy Earth.
Lars Von Trier continues to make the same film —about a masochistic woman who finds transcendence when the worst possible thing happens to her — in different genres. We’ve had it as a love story (Breaking The Waves), a musical (Dancer In The Dark), a small-town drama (Dogville), and a horror film (Antichrist); this is the science-fiction version, and the worst possible thing happens to everyone in the universe
It opens, like Antichrist, with an ultra-slo-mo horror scored to classical music, offering surreal images (Kirsten Dunst in a wedding dress as birds fall from the skies, Charlotte Gainsbourg and a child sinking into a golf course) that add up to the end of the world. The two sections are named for sisters who are both von Trier heroine-martyrs: Dunst’s melancholy Justine rejects every trapping of happiness and is thus not depressed by the end of all things, while Gainsbourg’s better-adjusted Claire has much more (happy marriage, child, lovely home) to lose and is enraged by cosmic cataclysm. Imagine the last five minutes of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes rewritten by Chekhov: its audacious mix of silliness and solemnity is glacially gripping even as it risks losing audience sympathy (and patience) by making Justine wilfully irritating as she responds to generosity and kindness with a kind of blank self-destruction that’s easy to read as cruelty. Twice, Claire tells Justine, “I hate you so much,” when she does or says something unforgivable — but she then forgives her anyway.
The first half is set on the evening of Justine’s wedding reception at the upscale hotel owned by her brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland, playing another of von Trier’s wrong-headed rationalists), which has been arranged at great personal and emotional cost by Claire and is wrecked by an escalation of delays, caprices, unhelpful guests (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as the long-estranged parents) and the bride’s impulse to turn away from her devoted, handsome, decent new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) to take an al fresco leak while in her wedding gown, disappear to sulk in the bath when the cake is due to be cut, and flee the bridal suite to rape a minor guest (Brady Corbet). She is generally such a nightmare that the wedding planner (Udo Kier) hilariously covers his eyes when she’s near because he can’t face the woman who has ruined his wedding. This section has a train-crash fascination, and Dunst (like so many von Trier actresses) is extraordinary in a difficult role, an impish but gloomy spirit.
Gainsbourg, cast in the ‘straight’ role after beyond-the-call-of-duty mania in Antichrist, is similarly perfect, and gets her heavy lifting to do in the second part, which takes place in the aftermath of the failed wedding as the near-catatonic Justine stays at the empty hotel in the last days of the planet. As has been proved by his offscreen statements, von Trier has a tendency to say things he doesn’t mean just to provoke an argument: the film seems to get behind Justine’s miserable vision, but its beauty, mordant wit and oh-come-on-now speeches about how dreadful it all is (“Life on Earth is evil”) constitute an undermining of gloom which practically sounds a chortle in the empty, Godless universe. Besides being an end of the world film, this is an Altmanesque comedy of a social event falling apart and a country-house drama that trumps family spats with the end of the world.
Von Trier is a burr under the hide for many viewers, and the unconverted won't be convinced. But it's audacious, beautiful, tactful filmmaking and perhaps the perfect match for The Tree Of Life on a bipolar double bill.