With talk of impending doom, the devastating effects of the changes in global climate, and the possible obliteration of the human race, it is only natural that these issues do not go unnoticed in the cinema. You will notice a trend as films begin to work these topics into their plot. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia does just that, and through its visually stunning cinematography, elite cast, and writing, it conjures up a sense of panic and anxiety as we the audience anticipate the possible collision of the Earth and another planet, Melancholia, in their “dance of death.” Lars von Trier is different in his approach, however, neglecting the social panic that characterizes end of world films and denying us conventional scenes of oncoming devastation. There are no newscasts documenting the planet’s approach and possible collision, no shots of deserted streets, and no jumping from person to person as we see their means of understanding obliteration. Instead, von Trier focuses on a small group of people, and more specifically, on the relationship between two sisters. He very skillfully reveals the relationship between the characters, and information regarding the approach of the newly discovered planet unfolds at a slow pace. The information is succinct with no elaborate scientific explanations: we know there is a planet hidden behind the sun and it is moving towards the earth. The characters, who we can only assume have this limited information, continue to participate in the tasks that define their quotidian experience.
The film is interesting in that it explores how we perceive psychological illness and depression in society, questioning the division between the sane and the insane, the healthy and the sick. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) has a premonition of the end of the world and accepts the hopelessness of it. After a very lengthy opening of slow motion images that reveal the content of her visions, we are introduced to her and her soon to be husband on their wedding day. The scene captures the characters’ immersion in banal experiences despite the end of time. Their limousine is too large for the dirt road on which it travels and the driver, Justine, and her husband each attempt to maneuver the very large vehicle through a very narrow turn. Although the scene is playful and introduces us to the seemingly contented soon to be husband and wife, it also poignantly outlines the characters' hopelessness as they waste time when their time on earth is limited. During the wedding ceremony, we notice, too, Justine’s depression as she is unable to find happiness in this union. By witnessing a depression that seems to run through the family evident through her mother’s blunt overview of marriage and stubbornness throughout the ceremony, we simply assert that Justine is psychologically ill.
The film is divided into two chapters: Justine and Claire. The first half, despite its slow pace, nicely introduces each character and prepares us for the very dramatic, absolutely stunning final scene. In each chapter, we see the characters’ acts of absolute despair which capture their vulnerability and passiveness as they are unable to prevent the collision. Through the emotional outburst of Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) in his inability to get a tag line from Justine for his add company, Justine’s escape from the bedroom on her wedding night to have sex on a golf course with a new colleague, and John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) persistence in explaining to his wife that scientists have proven that the planet is not a threat, Lars von Trier presents the characters’ desperation that is haunting in its emotional depth. The final scene highlights their powerlessness in the face of natural disaster as Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a last act of desperation attempts to flee to a village nearby with her son, but is left to return to the isolated golf course. In a fragile structure built of sticks, three characters sit atop a hill, holding hands and in the background, the planet approaches. The discrepancy between the emotional intensity of the characters illustrated through Justine’s calm acceptance of death, Claire’s dramatic cry that reveals her complete breakdown, and her child’s firm belief in the structure’s magical strength, demonstrates the vulnerability of the human desire to unite during our final hours.