Melancholia's first 8 minutes are filled with a series of astoundingly beautiful, surreal tableaux of Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and child actor Cameron Spurr, filmed in super-slow-motion. They are among the most arresting images you will see on a screen in this or any year. But the film that follows is more typical polarizing filmmaking from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier.
Melancholia is divided into two parts. The first, "Justine", is named for Dunst's character, and mostly takes place during her wedding reception (her groom is a hunky if dopey Alexander Skarsgård). We first see Justine as a giddy, laughing bride, but over the course of an increasingly nightmarish evening, her chronic depression begins to bubble to the surface, and we are eventually treated to one of the worst – and certainly most awkward – wedding receptions in film history.
And when I say "nightmarish", I mean it, as there is something distinctly dreamlike about the dialogue, behavior, and events of this sequence. It was jarring as I watched it – Trier is often criticized for taking an outsider's view of American culture, especially as he has reportedly never stepped foot in the US, and as a result some may think his English dialogue is stilted simply because it is not his first language. But his scripts for Dancer in the Dark and Dogville show a solid grasp of English. So something's up.
But whereas my wife spotted it right away, I have yet to read any other film critic mention – and I'm not giving anything away here – that this wedding, this entire first half of the film, may not have actually taken place. That it's all in Justine's morbid imagination, or is at least an allegory for how her depression has derailed her life. Clearly this is open to interpretation, but if you consider this possibility, the first half of the film will make a lot more sense.
Now we come to the second part, "Claire", named for Gainsbourg's character (Justine's sister). Claire doesn't suffer from depression, but she has her own issues, including a loveless marriage to John (Kiefer Sutherland), a fabulously wealthy prig on whose gigantic, isolated estate – complete with castle and 18-hole golf course (or is it 19 holes? This remains one of Melancholia's explicit mysteries) the entire film takes place. All the lively supporting players who populated the film's first half are gone, and we are left only with Justine, Claire, John, and their child (Spurr).
Here's where the story really kicks in: A gigantic planet called Melancholia has recently appeared from behind the sun and is due for a fly-by near Earth. Or so says John. What Claire fears – and what Justine seems to already know in her dark heart – is that the planet is actually going to collide into ours, obliterating everything we know and love. Since we see Earth's destruction during the film's opening sequence, it's a safe bet that John's calculations are off.
So what is Melancholia about, exactly? Well, there's the obvious connection between Justine's depression and the name of the planet. Lars von Trier has discussed his own depression on many occasions, so his film could be seen as an examination of the raw outlook of the depressive, or a metaphor for his own life, or simply a fatalistic, thoroughly anti-spiritual existentialist statement.
It's a strange movie, not easy to like. It's more emotionally distant than the gut-wrenching melodramas that made Trier a household name over a decade ago, and I'm not even sure if the film entirely works. But even if you don't care for it, you may, like me, find it impossible to get it out of your head.