A bride is not completely sold on the idea of being married and meanwhile a wandering planet is coming ever closer to Earth in Melancholia, a ruminative movie that can be fascinating and maddeningly slow.
And I’m not just saying that because it took forever to get to the part where Alexander Skarsgard started undressing.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst) has just married Michael (Skarsgard). We first see them together nuzzling in a stretch limo as it tries, unsuccessfully, to round a tight corner on a steep hill. After the driver, Michael and then Justine all give making the turn a shot, the couple ends up walking to the reception, making them hours late. At the time this seems like one of those romantic things that they’ll laugh over at their 30th anniversary party. But as the night wears on, that initial lateness starts to look like part of Justine’s passive-aggressive way to avoid all the weddingness. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Claire’s wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), have thrown her a lavish wedding reception on the grounds of his estate — by the time you see them eating late night onion soup from a kitchen set up on the lawn (which includes horse-riding trails and an 18-hole golf course) you start to wonder if these people aren’t 1890s robber barons. But nobody seems to be enjoying this fancy affair very much. Claire and Justine’s mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), is a sour woman who uses her wedding toast to insult her ex-husband and finishes with “enjoy it while it lasts.” The girls’ father, Dexter (John Hurt), has as his dates two women named Betty and seems rather uninterested in his daughter or how she’s doing.
And Justine is not doing well. She is, we come to realize, drowning in her own depression. We can’t tell whether she loves Michael or not. He has a sweet, romantic-yet-caring love for her (or maybe I’m just projecting because Skarsgard looks smoking hot in his tux) but she is disconnected from him. She floats by him, talks at him but he can’t get through to her and she can’t seem to let herself actually interact with him. She is being sucked down a drain and as the night ends, she seems barely aware of (or interested in) how completely her life has changed from what it was at the beginning of the reception.
In the movie’s second section, Claire is fretting over her sister while also worrying about Melancholia, a small planet that is scheduled to fly by Earth in the coming days. John, an amateur astronomer, and their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr) are delighted by this chance to see a piece of outer space so close up but Claire is terrified over the possibilities. Though many scientists are projecting a beautiful planet-rise and nothing more, Claire can’t stop thinking about predictions that the planet will hit Earth.
Melancholia is a bit like the wedding it portrays in its first half — beautiful, a little absurd, boring in parts but more interesting as time goes on. SPOILER ALERT: the movie begins with Melancholia crashing into the Earth. Is that what’s going to happen? Is that just a metaphor for the destruction of an inner life that we’re about to see? It takes a really long time for the movie to swing back around to the planet and make more than just foreshadowing references to the planet. By the movie’s end, I found myself, for lack of a better description, digging it — enjoying the dreamy pace, the otherworldly beauty of the planet, the nice use of dread from the effects of Melancholia (both the planet and the condition). And, yes, the movie does hit that pretty hard — melancholia, the destructive, obliterating powers of — but even that sort of works. Everything that feels kind of dippy and too much about the storytelling and performances during the wedding sequence starts to click as the movie turns its attention to Claire.
In the beginning, this movie reminded me a bit of The Tree of Life — sort of about the universe and about nothing. But Melancholia manages to have that same dreamy prettiness and wind up being about things such as the way depression can look and act, familial relationships (Claire at least twice tells Justine that she really hates her even while she also acts as her protector) and what anxiety is like (we can feel Claire’s tension and fear). The performances, untethered to reality though they are, all turn out to be kind of great, even the mannered performance of Sutherland’s character and the not-fully-formed performance from Skarsgard.
Melancholia is a long movie but it’s one worth sticking with. B
Rated R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and some language. Written and directed by Lars von Trier, Melancholia is two hours and 16 minutes long and is distributed by Magnolia Pictures (which is currently offering it via video on demand before it hits theaters later in November).