We begin with a series of very poetic images, all involving a young woman: slowly running through a field, being surrounded by flies, observing a child whittling a large branch, all culminating in a slow shot of a planet crashing onto another. After this tableau, we head to a wedding in what is billed Part One: Justine. The bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are navigating a stretch limo to the golf course chateau where their reception will take place. After a long time, the couple finally arrive, much to the irritation of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). We then go through a difficult reception, where Justine is slowly falling apart. Michael is a weak man, incapable of getting his bride through whatever stress is overwhelming her. Justine's mother Gabby (Charlotte Rampling) does not hide her resentment of marriage in general, while her ex-husband Dexter (John Hurt) is having too much fun with his "Bettys" to care about anything. Meanwhile, Justine's employer Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) is trying to get a tag line from her, gets his nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) to follow her around. Justine becomes so emotionally distraught that she wanders all around the golf course, culminating in her having sex with Tim in a sand trap. As Justine slips further and further into 'melancholia', Michael leaves her, and she tells Jack off, which prompts her to get fired.
Now, we go to Part Two: Claire. Justine is now alone at this seemingly empty golf course, with only her sister, brother-in-law, and nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr). John is an astronomer and is convinced that a new planet, called Melancholia, will not crash into Earth (and thus obliterate the planet) but will merely pass very close by. Now it's Claire who is going bonkers: not only does she have to care for the brittle Justine, but now is convinced they are all going to die. As two worlds come closer, Justine doesn't exactly rally or become suddenly cheerful but instead gains some sort of stability, even acceptance of where she is at. As we come to the (literal) end, Claire realizes that yes, Melancholia will indeed crash into Earth and that there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. At the end, while Claire constantly cries (especially after John has bumped himself off) and Leo is a bit oblivious to it all, Justine merely accepts the end of the world as the end of all things.
Again, I'm not a big fan of films that call too much attention to how artistic they are, both in tone and visuals. Melancholia does this starting from the get-go, with rather a elaborate and grand opening sequence (which in a dreamlike way state all the things we are going to see, in short, tells the story without giving away too much). Chief among Melancholia's artistic aspirations involves the dialogue: not the words actually spoken, but in how it is spoken. I'm learning that you can tell an 'art' film by all the whispering going on. This type of delivery (all this whispering when characters speak to each other) I find to be general nonsense, namely because people speak to each other in a even tone of voice (neither soft whispers or general shouting). By having all this breathy delivery by nearly all the characters, it draws attention to the unreality of the film.
The problem I had with Melancholia is that I thought the actual story was quite inventive and clever: a woman sinking into depression at what would be her happiest day but finding an equilibrium before the world literally ends. However, I find that Von Trier's handling of his story is what sank the film into bordering on the slightly pretentious side. A more realistic tone (where people don't whisper, where the camera doesn't zoom in and out all over the place, one where Wagner's Tristan und Isolde doesn't announce great tragedy or romance, or at least so often) would have made Melancholia a much better film in terms of drama. As directed by Von Trier, there is never any true sense of impending disaster, no sense of doom with Melancholia about to obliterate Terra Firma. Instead, there is basically what I call bored fear: a sense that there might be something but nothing that will cause great worries.
This isn't to say there aren't great things in Melancholia. I find that the performances are far better than the directing. It's been a long time since we've able to appreciate what a good actual actress Kirsten Dunst is. Last time I saw her, she was screaming her way through Spider-Man 3, but in Melancholia, she creates this woman who we can see is unraveling before us. Her range from a sense of being overwhelmed by something within her to expressing anger at Jack for what a lowlife she thinks him as through her acceptance that the world will end and that having great preparations for it are foolish show her to be an extremely accomplished performer who hasn't done enough. Actors or actresses who can express so much with just their faces, the look in their eyes for example, those who say a lot without dialogue, are the type that overwhelm us. Kirsten Dunst overwhelms us in Melancholia.
We know she must be crazy: any woman who doesn't want to schtupp Alexander Skarsgard has to be a bit nuts. I was also highly impressed by the younger Skarsgard: it was an interesting turn for someone best known as the virile vampire in True Blood to be such a whimpering, almost pathetically weak man. His performance was remarkably small (midway through Melancholia, he disappears), but in the few scenes he's in, not only does this Swede maintain a perfect American English accent, he also expresses the weakness within him, how he simply does not know how to handle either Justine or her family.
Gainsbourg was a bit too whimpering as Claire, but seeing her growing panic as she knows of the world's end was almost haunting (almost, since all that whispering got in the way). As Justine and Claire's parents, Hurt and Rampling were excellent as the irresponsible father and the bitter, bitchy mother. Truth be told, I thought that one could have made a whole story about them; actually, a better, stronger film could have been made if the focus had been on the story and not the visual grandness of Melancholia. Again and again, if it were not for all the pseudo-artsy aspirations of Melancholia, the film would have been brilliant.
In technical matters, certainly Manuel Alberto Claro's cinematography (in particular the visually stunning opening sequence--with a hint of Hamlet's Ophelia when we see our bride floating above the water) is spellbinding. There isn't a score to speak of, but while Tristan und Isolde at times was a bit too dramatic for my tastes, I have to admit Wagner's music was used very efficiently in creating that quasi-dream quality in Melancholia.
On the whole, however, I found Melancholia too involved in its aspirations to be "art" to be entertaining. It isn't that I didn't get the idea that inner turmoil wouldn't appear to be the end of the world, and on a certain level the film works if you yearn for those artsy endeavours. However, the wild camera work put me off, the naked aspirations (figuratively and literally) put me off, and all I could think of was that Melancholia was The Tree of Life meets Deep Impact with a mix of Rachel Getting Married. In short, Melancholia would not be my choice as the last thing I'd see when the world ends.