In the first half of Melancholia, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) slowly but surely sabotages her own wedding reception, and you can’t really blame her, because there is no one there who doesn’t demand something from her or from the occasion. Sibling Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wants the wedding she personally planned to go perfectly, and Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) wants Justine to appreciate the money he put into it — and the 18-hole golf course on his palatial estate. Their father (John Hurt) is there to drink and womanize, while their mother (Charlotte Rampling), elegantly dressed in a sweat suit, is there to spite her ex-husband. Justine’s new father-in-law (Stellan Skarsgård) also happens to be her boss, and he uses his wedding toast to despicably demand an advertising tagline from her. It seems that her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is the only person to bring out a smile from his bride (besides her nephew, Leo). But from the way he folds and tidies each article of clothing he strips off in preparation for their wedding night, it’s implied that he’s expectant of some sort of ideal from her and the situation, regardless of what she’s feeling.
Each of these people want Justine to be happy, but Justine is not happy. And they can’t accept it because of how her unhappiness effects them. This first part of the film drags along as Justine drags out her collapse. She is heavy with sadness, traipsing around her reception while belabored by the weight of her dress and her depression.
As much as this depression is admittedly one of writer and director (and is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-Hitler-sympathizer) Lars von Trier’s influences behind Melancholia, destruction and selfishness are running themes as well, and they are especially apparent in the second part, which occurs a short time after the wedding. Melancholia, a planet that has been hiding behind the sun, has made its way past Mercury and Venus and will be flying by Earth very soon. Claire is terrified, and John contemptuously puts down her doomsday theories. They bring Justine, now physically ill from her mental state, to their mansion, and as the planet approaches at thousands of miles per hour, she is able to anchor herself as the rest of her family becomes unhinged.
The devastation in Melancholia happens on macro and micro levels. While the world may obviously come to an end, the worlds of Justine and Claire and their family end well before this, and the ways that they handle their catastrophes are the center of the plot. While you watch Justine destroy what should be the happiest night of her life, you want to shake her, but as she begins to calmly settle herself in the second half, she actually turns out to be the least self-absorbed character in the film. Concurrently, this happens just as Claire begins to lose sight of her priorities.
There’s a slowness to be expected out of a 140-minute Von Trier film, and the pace escalates the anxiety of the impending doom orbiting our planet. Melancholia is a step away from the tenets of his Dogme 95 philosophy; there’s still the shaky hand-held camera and odd, intimate framing, but you can’t make a film about a rogue planet without using some CGI, though these technological features are employed as seamlessly as possible. In fact, Melancholia is a movie made for a movie theater. In its first few minutes, there are photograph-like images that move ever so slowly and whose beauty deserve a big screen. And the ominous sound of Melancholia sharing our atmosphere acts as a soundtrack for much of the film’s final moments.
Gainsbourg and Sutherland give effective performances of fear and false senses of security, but Dunst is clearly the center of the film. Despite all of the unforgivable things she does throughout the course of it — whether disappearing from her reception time and time again to abusing her beloved horse — by Melancholia‘s end, because of her depressive state, she is the only steady thing we have left to hold onto.