Weddings are about beginnings and endings, as two single lives end and become one married life, promising a hopeful future. The universe beyond our planet is a breathtaking void filled with great unknowns that also can be seen as a hopeful place where anything can happen. In both cases, when the unexpected occurs, all hell breaks loose.
Danish auteur Lars von Trier explores both issues in his film Melancholia, currently out on home video from Magnolia Entertainment. Compared by many in scope and reach with Terence Malick’s tone poem Tree of Life, this is a more personal and accessible story despite it depressing plot lines. The beautifully filmed and visually impressive film is also anchored by an, ahem, stellar cast.
After a prologue tipping you off that Earth is destroyed we then begin the story. Split into two sections, each named after a sister, we open with “Justine” and the wedding. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are trying to make it to the top of a mountain for their wedding ceremony at the palatial castle owned by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). They’re late given the difficulty of getting the limo up the steep road and things spiral downhill from there. On what is billed as the happiest day of her life, Justine winds up feeling alone and isolated, retreating to take a bath during the reception. Some of her actions are to avoid her parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) who brought their own personal drama to the event. Justine is trapped, feeling as if she has made a mistake and can’t get out of it.
“Claire” opens up some time later with Justine recovering from her life falling apart by staying with sis and her husband. During this period, a gas giant hiding behind earth’s sun, dubbed Melancholia, shifts in its orbit and in five days will pass by Earth, ending life as we know it. How our characters react to this impending doom drives this half as Justine welcomes the new world and Claire cracks up at the prospect.
The two sisters are a study in contrasts with the deep-thinking Justine set against the almost manic Claire and as each reacts to the events in the two halves, you watch them struggle with a reality neither seems comfortable in.
It’s a thoughtful character study set against an unbelievable premise but von Trier never does anything in a conventional manner. The themes are basic ones but he paints them on a huge canvass in gorgeous colors, shot by Manuel Alberto Claro. You can’t take your eyes off the screen and he lets the characters take their time. The cast rises to the challenges of the material so it’s a bleak but compelling film, worthy of seeking out.
The movie transfers nicely to Blu-ray and comes with a nice assortment of extra features. These include About Melancholia (12:00) as von Trier, Dunst, Gainsbourg, and psychologist Irene Oestrich analyze the film’s themes; Special Effects (7:02); The Visual Style (10:11), where von Trier and Claro talk; The Universe (4:25), as astrophysicist Michael J. Linden talks about the science involved in destroying the world; HDNet: A Look at Melancholia (5:06), and trailers.