For the first half of Melancholia, writer-director Lars Von Trier presents an interesting character study in the form of Justine (Kirsten Dunst, miscast as the inexplicably American daughter of John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), smiling her way through a wedding reception with every ounce of effort she can muster. There’s a deliberate, restrained reveal to the depths of Justine’s crippling depression, and how it affects all of her relationships in negative ways, from the comic snubbing of a wedding planner to the unavoidably tragic impact it has on her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard).
Dunst is fine at bringing the script to life, but doesn’t channel much beyond that. As such, it’s hard to feel along with the privileged Justine. She’s depressed just because. That’s not to trivialize clinical depression, but there’s no effort to create a greater understanding of the condition, other than to say it makes you really sad. Von Trier is skilled enough to mine some emotional truth from her scenes, but without an actress whose willing to meet him halfway, he only makes a movie that’s halfway good.
Conversely, you have Charlotte Gainsbourg as Justine’s sister Claire, who brings her all to an underwritten role. Claire’s fierce dedication to her family, not only to Justine, but to her condescending husband (Keifer Sutherland) makes her one of Von Trier’s most accessible female characters. It’s a shame that even in Claire’s portion of the movie, Justine takes center stage.
Melancholia is split right down the middle, into chapters titled “Justine” and “Claire,” but both chapters deal with Justine as the significant central character — one-half examining her destructive wedding day and the other dealing with how her presence affects the life of her sister while the world is on the brink of destruction. There’s a planet called Melancholia, you see, and it’s headed right for us. We’re all doomed. So, while Justine deals with crippling melancholia, Melancholia itself is going to render all that we love completely meaningless by crashing into the Earth. The symbolism never gets any deeper than that.
Because it’s all right there on the surface, spelled out for us, there’s not much left to think about as the planet gets closer and closer in the film’s slower-moving second half. Relationship complexities are kept to a minimum, with the only significant development being Justine’s peaceful resignation in the face of death. She’s probably thankful that the universe is putting an end to her misery, and she’s calm because she’s faced melancholia before (get it?).
It’s a beautiful, fragile movie without a lot to say. The tone and the gorgeous cinematography from Manuel Claro create a sense of importance that just isn’t supported by Von Trier’s middling screenplay. It’s a one-off character sketch painted with the brush of a master. Melancholia is certainly worthwhile, but disappoints by never digging any deeper into the subject matter than a thin performance and an on-the-nose metaphor.