Despite stunning visuals and solid performances from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as two sisters grappling with each other as well as their impending doom, Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” falls flat, unable to maintain the story’s momentum for its lengthy, two-hour-plus run.
The film takes place in the days leading up to Earth’s collision with the fictional planet of Melancholia. Its opening montage essentially clues you in to everything you need to know; not only will the world end to the swell of a beautifully epic score, but everything will look eerily gorgeous as it does. Exaggerated slow motion sequences resembling outtakes from a high-fashion photo shoot emphasize the sisters’ distinct sensibilities, showing how Justine (Dunst) reacts with detached acceptance and Claire (Gainsbourg) with alarmed panic.
Divided into two parts, the first chronicles Justine’s wedding reception, an overblown affair organized by Claire. The party seems ill-fated from the start, when the bride and groom’s limo comically struggles to navigate the winding road to Claire and her husband John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) palatial estate. The newlyweds arrive two hours late, and the subsequent confrontation between Justine and Claire is only an indication of the sparks soon to fly amongst the other guests, which include the sisters’ divorced and now hostile parents, played by Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt. As the evening wears on, Justine’s façade as the blushing bride begins to crumble, revealing an emotionally unstable young woman whose frequent disappearances from her own party begin to take their toll on her new husband.
Part two takes place days after the wedding, during which Justine, now single, has suffered a breakdown requiring her to move in with Claire’s family. Claire, however, has become fixated upon Melancholia’s approach, and grows increasingly distressed as it looms ever larger in the night sky. John, an amateur astronomer, assures her that the planet will merely pass them by but, well, you know how it ends. And whereas the tragicomedy of the wedding reception is lively and engaging, the second half of the film begins to drag under the weight of its own gravity.
With that said, what makes the film still enjoyable are its incredible art direction and cinematography. Shot partly on location at Sweden’s breathtaking Tjolöholm Castle, the isolating backdrop heightens the drama, particularly as Melancholia comes closer and Claire realizes that she has nowhere to hide in her personal oasis. The rich color palette shifts from the green hues of the castle grounds, which serve as Justine’s refuge in the first part, to the more bluish radiance of the approaching planet.
Perhaps if the sisters were more fully fleshed out, the audience would be more compelled to stay with them until the end. (Justine’s personal melancholia, for example, is never fully explained. Dunst has arguably never been better, but even a great performance cannot compensate for insufficient writing). Thus the final act is more of a tedious slog to an inevitable conclusion. While there is no doubt that von Trier’s film is a sumptuous visual feast, it might just leave some viewers cold.