Melancholia opens with a series of dramatically lit, startling dream-like images: falling birds rain during the day, a collapsing horse falls painfully slow in the dark. Wrapped in a wedding dress, Kirsten Dunst floats down a stream like a waking Ophelia. She stands silently in a field, electricity flickering from her fingertips. Engulfed by a rogue planet, the world ends.
In the hands of Danish director and writer Lars von Trier, Armageddon is a strangely calm, almost cheerful, event. He uses the rather hackneyed sci-fi meme of intergalactic death to explore two character types, exemplified in two sisters, each with her own chapter. After the prologue, the film rushes into the first chapter, Justine, played by an outstandingly charismatic Dunst, who portrays a self-centered but indecisive bride who ruins her own wedding to a tall, dark, handsome (and hopelessly callow) lad through a series of inappropriate actions while her divorced parents bicker. Directed with an almost documentary style as psychological realism, the story is yet filled with symbols. The action begins with the couple arriving late to their wedding reception. Tellingly, their limousine is too large to navigate the narrow, winding road to the comically opulent estate home of Justine’s sister Claire (played by a dutiful, pragmatic Charlotte Gainsburg), and John, her golf- and money-obsessed husband (played by a pompous, self-satisfied Kiefer Sutherland).
The second chapter begins with Justine now an incapacitated depressive, entirely dependent on her sister and irked husband. News comes of Melancholia, Earth’s massive twin that has been hiding behind the light of the sun, now revealing itself as it approaches on a dangerous new trajectory.
As the threat of Melancholia, the planet, turns from improbable to certain collision, Justine’s own melancholy subsides and the sisters’ roles are reversed. While Claire becomes despondent, and her son Leo remains confused, Justine becomes the only source of strength to the family. Though unable to face the soon-to-be-gone-forever everyday world, she excels at surfing the apocalypse.
The film is intensely beautiful, but why is the ending — the end of the world — not a downer? The foreshadowing in the prologue gives the plot away, and of course, you know this is sci-fi. But something else has happened by the last moment. The film conveys a sense of peace because the opposed couples — the sisters at odds, the twin planets — have finally gotten together. That this synthesis results in the annihilation of the life-world is, perhaps, an emotional justification for enduring the daily conflict that we live in this side of death.
★★★★(out of 5 stars)
Dir. Lars von Trier; writ. Lars von Trier; feat. Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland (R)