Lars von Trier has a go at sci-fi in this end of the world drama. It’s Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding day at a remote country house, but she is uneasy with the situation and things go pear shaped. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to pull things together, but can’t shake a feeling of impending doom.
How will the characters spend their final hours on Earth? Will they take drugs? Drive a car like a maniac? Have an orgy? No, they decide to bicker amongst themselves. The master of atmosphere here shuns nail-biting suspense and ultraviolence in favour of a drama about two people who seem intent on making their final living hours as unpleasant as possible for each other.
Melancholia follows a similar structure to Antichrist, with chapter headings and a slow motion beginning put to operatic music, but unlike Antichrist, it never quite matches the promise of its opening. The first couple of minutes resemble an oil painting come to life, and while the rest of the film enjoys the visual delights unique to von Trier’s style, the content of the film doesn’t match this.
It opens at a wedding, but in spite of the happy faces, a sense of unease is in the air. Trier isn’t known for his warmth or humour, and here is no exception. The two main characters are cold, detached, humourless and haunting, with an almost trance-like glaze over their faces. This is too hard to relate to in a film which is about people coming to terms with the end of the world. It’s impossible to put ourselves in their shoes when we have nothing in common with their characters.
Many of these characteristics were true of Antichrist‘s characters, but having just lost their son, this felt like a result of their circumstances, rather than their personalities. In Melancholia the two women are hard to like even when they’re at the wedding, when precisely how much they know about their impending doom is unclear. The premise would seem to allow for some nihilistic indulgence, intimacy between loved ones or out-and-out grief, but none of these is possible with the characters von Trier has created.
While visually remarkable and very atmospheric, von Trier fails to realise the potential of this story.