Note: minor spoilers for Melancholia.
In movies, Apocalypse tends to be a gritty affair. Not in Melancholia. Lars von Trier’s film about two sisters’ last days on Earth is as composed and beautiful as a movie about apocalypse could be.
In contrast to the shoestring special effects of a Doctor Who episode or the state-of-the-art CGI of a Marvel feature — fun and in-your-face in their own ways — Melancholia uses special effects sparingly. It puts the drama above the science fiction and gives the film a classic, almost timeless feel.
The film is timeless in other ways, too.
The first half feels like a contemporized Jane Austen novel, with stifling social convention and a protagonist trapped by family duty. Von Trier alternates between the ostensibly perfect wedding and private backroom conversations between Justine, her sister, parents, and husband, as Justine’s marriage unravels on the night it began. Tensions between her and her boss escalate in parallel, leaving her jobless as well.
The second act, on the other hand, feels like a contemporized H.G. Wells novel. A few months later, Justine lives with Claire and her family because she has become so detached she no longer takes care of herself. Claire’s husband John is the sort of aristocrat scientist managing his estate and staring through a telescope that War of the Worlds or The Time Machine readers would recognize immediately. As his wife monitors her sister for emotion, he excitedly monitors Melancholia’s close approach to Earth, placing total trust in projections that it will miss Earth. Not long after a close, predicted flyby, John, Claire, and Justine individually realize the planet will boomerang back and collide with Earth, following a path conspiracy theorists dubbed the “Dance of Death.”
In von Trier’s hands; however, John’s hubris is less a tragic flaw and more an everyday foible. His confidence is naive but not, ahem, earth-shattering, let alone story defining. Astronomy is one thing, Von Trier seems to be saying, but don’t you care more about Justine and Claire?
We just might, thanks to the two leads. Kristen Dunst gives a solid performance as Justine. The role includes the mixed emotions of her wedding, total emotional arrest, and finally a subzero fatalism. You don’t want to be person Dunst creates —or her sister— but you can’t help admiring the character.
Charlotte Gainsborough (Claire) is a near perfect foil to Dunst. Deceptively straightforward at first, Gainsborough charts a course for Claire that’s just as challenging as Dunst’s. Claire seems like a flat character, disapproving of her sister and apparently blaming her for her depression. Her indifference evaporates in the face of her sister’s deteriorating mental health, and by the end, she’s trying hard to protect her sister and son in the face of a world-ending catastrophe.
The acting and cinematography are well-done to the point where viewers could forgive less-than-stellar pacing. Unfortunately, we have to. The languid plot echoes Justine’s languid mood, but the parallel is drawn too often and risks putting the audience off. The second act is appreciably shorter and — honestly — better for it.
Finally, I’d be remiss to not applaud Melancholia for having two female leads. The predominant logic among studios is that any female lead needs to be paired with a male lead, if not made the one exception to an all-male ensemble. Melancholia is smarter than that, giving most of the screen time to Dunst and Gainsborough, who make this more than another sci-fi flick with an interesting premise and little else. Instead, it’s a remarkable story of two sisters, whose contradictory relationship you won’t easily forget.