Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Split into two halves, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia first follows the late-night wedding reception held for newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), thrown for them at a gorgeous, isolated country house and golf course owned by Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Claire’s wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). As one might expect of an international art film, Melancholia is slow-moving and pensive, and may not be the film for those who prefer the typical Hollywood three-act structure built on character goals and conflict. Yet our protagonist does have a goal, or at least her loved ones do, which is that she make it through her wedding reception without a “scene.”
She does not.
Instead, governed by depression, Justine creates scene after scene, seemingly against her own will, which has been taken over by her disease. As one who has no first-hand experience with chronic depression, I found it to be an eye-opening representation of the condition. Justine puts words to the image we have seen in the film’s opening scenes when she tells Claire that she feels like she’s “trudging . . . through a gray . . . heavy . . . yarn. It’s very hard to get through.” Throughout the film’s first half, Justine engages in increasingly erratic behavior. She abandons her wedding guests, falling asleep on her nephew’s bed or going upstairs to strip off her wedding gown and hop in the bath. As her depression worsens, sometimes she can hardly move. She can’t get out of bed; she can’t even eat. When Claire cooks her sister meatloaf, her favorite food, Justine takes one bite and cries. To her, “it tastes like ashes.”
Yet the film is not without a lighter side. Justine’s bizarre behavior is at times refreshing, if only because it offers a contradiction to the blushing bridezilla we’ve come to expect from the typical wedding movie. As Justine speeds away from the mansion in a golf cart, all while hoisting her heavy wedding dress about , viewers have to chuckle at the absurdities that often accompany formal affairs. Kiefer Sutherland is amusing, especially if you can’t help but see Jack Bauer onscreen working to defuse this ticking-time-bomb of a party. Sutherland plays John, Justine’s brother-in-law, who has arranged this fancy reception largely in order to show off his expansive villa and golf course (it has 18 holes!). His talents are especially on display as both Justine and her cranky mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), lock themselves in their bedrooms while the entire wedding reception waits downstairs for the women to join the cake-cutting ceremony. When John throws the mother out, he humps her suitcases down the stairs and pitches them out the front door, where they sit on the mansion’s lawn for exactly three seconds before the butler comes out, picks them up again, and carries them back inside.
By the end of her reception, however, Justine’s behavior has gone from funny to destructive, and she loses both her husband and her job in one night. After this she launches into an even deeper depression, until the film moves into its second half, entitled “Claire,” where our characters learn that the planet Melancholia, which has been somehow hiding behind the sun (it’s best not to think about this plotline from a scientific perspective), may be on a collision course with the Earth. Here it is Claire who enters into prolonged panic about whether the planet could hit Earth, even though John assures her that scientists are certain it won’t. Claire is the mother of young Leo (Cameron Spurr), and she frets for his safety, wondering that if the Earth is destroyed, “Where will Leo grow up?” This is where Claire’s descent into fear mirrors aspects of Justine’s disease, and this second half could be imagined as the film’s way of helping those who don’t suffer from depression to comprehend how a depressed person must feel: as if the end of the world is approaching quickly, bringing not only individual death and the death of one’s child, but the extinction of the entire human race, and indeed, all life in the universe, as Justine assures us that “Life is only on Earth. And not for long.”
What I find especially interesting about the second half of the film is that it gives us some insight into how people behave when they know they’re going to die. The audience knows how it will all end from the beginning, thanks to Von Trier’s opening series, which includes an arresting scene of the Earth smashing into the much larger Melancholia. Likewise certain from the start that the planet will not pass harmlessly by, Justine is calm. Now more recovered from her previous immobility, she is seen eating from a jar of jam, scooping it out with her fingers like a child. No one tells her to find a spoon. They’re just happy she’s content for once, and one can’t help but smile at her childlike pleasure.
Sutherland’s character, who first came off as an egotistical show-off and later as a concerned husband and father, is portrayed finally as selfishly incapable. When Claire wants to spend their final hours drinking wine, Justine’s rebuke seems cold, but it’s only when we see Justine finally indulging in her nephew Leo’s desire to play in the woods, building “magic caves” out of sticks, that the film comes together.
Because really, it has been the cranky mother who has earlier voiced the film’s theme: “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Here she is referring to Justine’s (very short) marriage, but her advice is just as applicable to Justine’s and Claire’s very short lives. Indulging in the child’s desires and meeting their fates head-on, Justine, Claire, and Leo end their lives not in a frenzied panic but with dignity, having enjoyed it as much as possible.
I’m probably putting myself in the minority when I say that I don’t find the film’s ending sad. Like I said, I’m fascinated by how regular people behave in situations when they know they’re going to die. Maybe this comes from my own experience of watching my grandmother struggle with terminal liver cancer, watching her accept her fate and plan out her own funeral the way she had planned dinner gatherings and church meetings her whole life long. Or her sister, who, before she drifted fully into dementia, pulled me aside in the JC Penney’s bra aisle to tell me that she was alright with dying because she felt lucky her life had been so full. “I’ve had a good life,” she said. “A really good life.”
After all, don’t we all live every day in a situation in which we know we’re going to die? How do we behave, already knowing that fate? Do we convince ourselves that that planet will pass us by? Do we build “magic caves” in the hopes they will protect us? Or do we comfort those around us and truly live in the little time we have left? This film doesn’t make me depressed as much as it makes me want to go eat a pot of jam with my fingers while I can.