Melancholia is mainly a film about the relationship between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Much of the film is set during Justine’s wedding reception and it is a fairly basic drama about these two women and their problems. But there is one other plot element: a planet is moving past Earth and could possibly destroy it in the coming days. That certainly ups the interest factor in a sibling drama.
The planet, Melancholia, adds a sense of foreboding to the film that becomes its saving grace. This is a film that is all about atmosphere and what creates a greater, darker mood for a film than Earth’s potential destruction? Too often end of the world movies have been about the scientists trying to stop it and all the action that entails. It’s refreshing, and a bit depressing, to see a film that just accepts it and uses it as a backdrop for a troubled familial relationship.
The relationship is the main point of this film, though. At no point does this actually feel like a film that is focused on the sci-fi element. Melancholia is completely about Justine and Claire. That might cause a problem for some viewers as the destruction of Earth is a bit more interesting than two bickering sisters, yet if you allow yourself to be drawn in by the film then the sisters should completely hold your interest and that planet that may or may not destroy Earth can stay where it belongs: in the background.
Justine and Claire are just as interesting as Melancholia because of their mental problems. Justine suffers from immense depression and Claire seems to be in a constant state of anxiety. Their problems can be of the infuriating kind as there are so many scenes of unspoken issues. You may find yourself urging them on to just cut the crap and yell at each other. Aside from that, though, it is quite clear that something is wrong and most of their scenes are compelling, especially when the rest of the family is involved.
Melancholia also works because of the insanely talented cast. Dunst (who took home Best Actress at Cannes) gives a great performance that completely embodies depression. Gainsbourg gets the less showy role but handles it with impressive understatement. The rest of the cast has their moments as well: Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgard all keep the film moving nicely in their supporting roles.
In short, Melancholia is not a film for most people. I can’t imagine von Trier ever making a film for most people, anyway. In fact, I wasn’t one of those people this film was for after my initial viewing. It just grew on me. And perhaps all films should be taken at face value, but when you watch hundreds of movies a year, something as different as Melancholia deserves a second thought. Casual filmgoers should probably skip this one, but the more obsessive watchers should give Melancholia a close look.