Melancholia makes no apologies in the obvious weight of melancholia crashing into something so grand but vulnerable. The underlying meaning of the film lies in a character study between characters who convey their own responses to the actions of others and events beyond their control. This 2011 film is fatalistic, but it is the moments between where the heart of the film lies.
The film is split into two chapters, each named after the sisters. “Justine” recounts the night of Justine (Kristin Dunst) and Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgård) wedding and reception, which is marred by erratic behavior from Justine and her divorced parents. The reception is held at Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Leo’s (Kiefer Sutherland) mansion and estate who foot the bill. Throughout the night, Justine focuses on a red star, Antares, which is too bright to ignore, and her behavior becomes increasingly irregular throughout the night.
The opening scene of Melancholia acts as a stylistic overture to the film. In incredibly slow-motion, the opening scene uses symbolism to present us with scenes of panic and destruction seen through the eyes of a depressed or apathetic person. Many of these scenes return later in the film, sans symbolism, to show us the real-time, real-life urgency of the situation. The scene also introduces the leitmotif of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and takes away the suspense of the film’s major issue, the planet Melancholia crashing into Earth. The reason for this is to explain that this film will examine the characters of the film before and after the realization of impending doom.
In the “Claire” section of the film, Justine arrives back at the mansion to recover from an episode of deep depression. At first, she is unable to walk or bathe on her own. As she slowly gets better, the inevitability of Earth’s survival worsens. This is why the opening scene depicting the collision does not ruin the film, it allows the film to explore the human fight or flight response. As an example, Leo is an amateur astronomer who peers out into space during the days as Melancholia passes the planet. He exhibits the event with the scientific reverence and rationality that he would have for any cosmic event, but when Melancholia takes a return trip to head right towards earth, his own fight or flight response is a drastic about face.
Although Melancholia is a relatively original story, the character study through the perspective of an omniscient handheld camera becomes tiresome quickly. Director Lars Von Trier’s creation of Dogme 95, a specific movement of filmmaking that relied on minimalism and rejected genre specificity, had implored the use of a minimalistic style of filmmaking, specifically handheld camera work. Although the movement has been discontinued, von Trier has continued to push some of the movement’s intentions and minimalism to explore the human condition and connections. This minimalistic style is incredibly present in the film, but it is contrasted by the effects necessary to produce Melancholia and the gorgeous opening scene.
It is more pleasing to simply close your eyes and enjoy the gorgeous Wagner composition in surround sound than it is to focus on the film. Essentially, von Trier’s use of Wagner’s music to create German Romantic connections is usurped by the score itself. The score is cosmic all on its own. Both glorious and grand, like how one planet collides with the only planet known to contain something as precious as life. Melancholia itself just crashes into spectators who may also have their own melancholic reaction to the film. Essentially, the film is an attempt to show how a family, who are already having dysfunctional issues, attempting to deal with a once in a lifetime catastrophic event.