Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) have just been wed. At first we see what appears to be a happy couple. However this quickly unravels, and Justine, despite being successful in business, is revealed as mercurial, fragile, and suffering from crippling depression.
Meanwhile, the planet Melancholia, which has slipped out of its usual orbit, is heading toward earth. As we get hints of a coming astronomical disaster, family members try to coax and bully Justine out of her misery and erratic behavior. Her kind but somewhat clueless husband tries to give her hope for the future. But it’s all to no avail; the marriage ends on their wedding night.
The second half of the film tells the rest of the story, seen through the eyes of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire struggles to care for Justine, whose depression has virtually shut her down. In several raw, agonizing scenes, she tries to bathe and feed her sister who struggles to swallow a bite of food and sobs “it tastes like ashes.”
Soon Claire’s attention is diverted to the coming apocalypse. Despite reassurances that it will pass our planet without incident, Claire — who is the mother of a young son — struggles with mounting anxiety. Together the two sisters, who clearly have a close but very damaged relationship, are left to comfort the child and face the impending apocalypse.
This film provoked mixed feelings in me. It is artistically gorgeous but self-consciously artsy. It offers amazing performances, along with the most compelling portrayal of depression I’ve ever seen onscreen, but it kept me at a distance, making it difficult for me to connect with the characters. I wanted to understand their motivations and behavior but was left navigating a lot of complex, dysfunctional relationships, in the dark, without guidance. I suspect this was by design, reflecting the world through the eyes of a confused, severely depressed young woman.
I savored the gorgeous cinematography and imagery. Some images reflect famous works of art. For example, the opening sequence includes an image of Justine floating in the water which looks like “Death of Ophelia,” a painting that later appears in the film. However, the style of the film, reflected in the cinematography, imagery, and music, is so artistic that, at times, it’s distracting. It distanced me from the story and characters. In general, I think a great film should absorb you into its world — connecting you to the story and characters — rather than making you consciously aware of the filmmaker’s artistic sleight of hand at every turn. On the other hand this distance, which is probably intentional, closely mirror’s the film’s themes.
The acting, particularly by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, is amazing, and I loved the complicated relationship between Justine and Claire. Throughout the movie we see Justine struggle to take charge of and care for her severely depressed sister. Yet as the apocalypse looms, Justine’s despair gives her a sense of detachment, which actually becomes a source of strength. As Claire’s anxiety ratchets up, nearly incapacitating her, Justine offers comfort to Claire’s child and decides how they’ll spend their last moments on earth. That’s a magnificent twist.
The best part of the film, for me, is its portrayal of severe depression. Filmmaker Lars von Trier certainly knows of what he speaks. I have been through major depression, a condition most people minimize — and gone through it with family members — and this is something movies rarely get right. Justine’s pain, as she finds herself unable to handle routine challenges like taking a cab, bathing, or eating, is agonizingly raw and honest. This aspect of the movie, above all, is what has lingered with me for years after seeing the film.