Suffering from a vague script, vague performances, and even vaguer mise-en-scène, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia achieves a strange momentum towards the abstraction of scattershot filmmaking reminiscent, despite his new film's romantic grandeur (no one has quoted Wagner as vividly as this film does) of his Dogme days. After an illustrated prologue picturing exaggerated, slow motion tableaux of events to come, the film begins its first half, dedicated to Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, with a limousine bringing the newly married young woman and her husband up a road with such sharp turns that the couple's carriage, in a prefiguration of what will soon happen to the story, immediately gets stuck and is unable to move forward. It is a fittingly weird and funny beginning for the darkly comedic wedding party that makes up the film’s first half, and which surrounds the fatally melancholy Dunst with figures from her life so absurd—Charlotte Rampling, mother, John Hurt, father, Udo Kier (stealing the movie) as a wedding planner (!), and Stellan Skarsgård as her boss—and so cartoonish the context provided for her depression seems as fragmentary and ill-formed as the film’s handheld camera work and editing. The second half Melancholia focuses on Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her increasing alarm at the chances that a planet (titular Melancholia, also the mental affliction of Justine) scheduled to pass very close to the Earth might crash into it despite scientific assurances from her husband (Keifer Sutherland).
This half, even though it takes place in the same uncharacterized and arbitrary country mansion as the opening wedding, loses the unity of place and event in Justine’s story, drops most of the supporting cast, and peers with relentless, handheld curiosity at Gainsbourg as she struggles to express a tension that can exist only on the surface of the film. Her child, her husband, and her life in the film’s unreal mansion setting has no texture of plausibility, and she hangs floating in the film like Dunst floated through the wedding and indeed as Earth is floating through space—all scheduled to collide with melancholia. Dunst expresses a very powerful and sustained despair through each half's ordeal, but the film is lopsided, with Claire’s family too generalized to provide insight into her anxiety, just as Dunst’s depression is impossible to place amongst the remnants of her life Trier barely sketches around her.
Indeed, the film feels nearly improvised, the lines happenstance and awkwardly phrased in English—witness Skarsgård’s insistence on a “tagline.” Seemingly scripted and filmed on the fly, with copious CGI made to bookend the ladies' nervous mania with fatal, swoony grandeur, the film is made around one idea: that for one sister (half of a person) the end of the world is a party, wedding, family—people, society—and for the other, the end of the world is the uncertainty of the many possible indifferent catastrophes in such a large and powerless world—that is, a crisis of mental stability and faith. Faces tell little beyond immediate emotional states, extended in duration, compressed in spaces, blurred and rendered general, anonymous, abstract by Trier’s slipshod filmmaking. And it slips right over the surface of the film, seeing only superficial womanly anxiety—and the delirious, tragic romance of it—and not much else.
This review originally appeared in our coverage for the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.