In the opening sequence of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, we are introduced to an older and darker Kirsten Dunst, alternately struggling against her fate in an elaborate wedding dress and quietly accepting it as planet earth collides, in agonizing slow-motion, with the titular planet.
Separated into two parts—the first focussing on the night of Justine’s (Dunst) wedding reception and the second on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the days before Melancholia’s impact—the film introduces us to a family featuring John Hurt as the patriarch who refers to every woman he meets as “Betty” and his estranged ex-wife played by Charlotte Rampling, who communicate almost exclusively in stinging quips and drunken slurs.
Justine meets us as a giddy bride as she arrives (late) to the party thrown by the anal Claire at the decadent home she and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) share. Before long, Justine reverts to her usually-unwell self; she is unpredictable and cloaked in depression, unable to keep up the happy bride act for her expectant audience of well-wishers.
As Chapter Two opens over an hour later, Claire is on the phone weeks later, gently coaxing Justine into a taxi to bring them together. John, a star-gazer, has been with their son Leo observing the patterns of the planet Melancholia, which he insistently tells his wife is going to pass right by the earth. As the film builds to a climax—scored with the suitably epic Prelude from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner—the sisters come together resignedly, just in time for everything to fall apart.
Von Trier’s technical decisions here harken back to the rules of his Dogme 95 manifesto, with a few notable exceptions. While cinematographer Manuel Claro used steadicam throughout—something that allowed him to always be in the right places, capturing emotion and expression emerging right in front of his lens—and the use of the jaw-dropping Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden ticked a few boxes, this was in no way a Dogme film (as we predicted in our coverage of it earlier in the year), if only for the grand scale on which its action occurs. While it is, in the end, a story about the end of the world, Melancholia arrives at that impact with a tense, surprisingly funny and insular story of family, mental illness and the importance of not taking Kiefer Sutherland’s advice.
Melancholia plays during the New York Film Festival from October 3 and is released on November 11 through Magnolia Pictures.