More than a couple of critics have reported walking out at the end of Melancholia feeling energized, elated, even ecstatic. This would seem peculiar, if only because it’s a film about the end of the world, but it’s absolutely true. If Lars von Trier’s last film (Antichrist) was regarded as a bit of a downer, Melancholia is a gas.
Actually, in the scheme of the film, “Melancholia” is a rogue planet. And it’s on a collision course with Earth. Trier foreshadows this in the film’s beautiful prologue. As Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde swells on the soundtrack, we are presented with a series of slow, surreal images: a woman in a wedding dress, her legs tangled in what looks like black netting; the same woman, in a different setting, with electric current shooting from her fingers; another woman, frozen in horror; a horse kneeling down, apparently broken.
So the ending, when it comes two hours later, isn’t exactly a surprise. So what? Unless you’re watching Quentin Tarantino rewrite the end of World War II, when was the last time a film’s ending surprised you?
The first part of Melancholia is set at a lavish wedding. That it isn’t going to be smooth sailing is evident from the slapstick of the opening scene, as an absurdly long limousine inches its way around and up a curvy mountain road. The bride and groom (Kirsten Dunst as Justine and Alexander Skarsgard as Michael) are highly amused, but when they finally reach the magnificent manor house where the wedding’s being held, no one else is. They’re two hours late.
The mood is poisoned, and everything starts to unravel. The action begins to resemble a Robert Altman party scene as the hand-held camera works the room, picking up snatches of conversation among the increasingly unruly guests. There are moments of great embarrassment, thanks primarily to the bride’s outrageous parents (Charlotte Rampling, acidic and selfish, and John Hurt, bonkers), and scenes of dark cruelty, courtesy of the bride’s brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland, fatuous) and employer (Stellan Skarsgard, vicious). No wonder Justine unravels right alongside the festivities.
And yet it’s not painful to watch; it’s painfully funny. Trier adds any number of delicious comic elements, from the horrified wedding planner who refuses to look at the bride who ruined “his” wedding (Udo Kier, priceless as he blocks Justine from view with his hand), to the juicy manner in which Justine turns the tables on her boss.
The second part is set a few months later. Justine has suffered a complete emotional collapse, and returns to the manor to be cared for by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Meanwhile, good old Melancholia speeds its way across the cosmos toward Earth.
Dunst won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and she deserves it. It’s a summation of everything she’s done before. She’s played an emotionally unstable woman in love convincingly before, in Crazy/Beautiful; in Elizabethtown, she made one of Cameron Crowe’s more ridiculous happy-girl-who-saves-the-hero conceptions almost human. Whenever her characters have met disappointment, in romcoms like Wimbledon or dramas like Marie Antoinette, she has a way of letting the joy go out of her that’s swift and devastating.
Justine endures a wrenching emotional arc. Dunst makes you feel every bit of it, from happy bride to crushed soul on through her exhilarating rejuvenation as Melancholia edges ever closer. Trier even gives Justine a scene where she luxuriates naked in the dark reflection of Melancholia, transforming her into a demented moon maiden in a pagan fever dream. (Thus, the delicious surfeit of Wagner in the big scenes.)
The ending is as stylized, surreal and beautiful as the prologue. Others have made us laugh or mourn the end; Trier makes us happy about it.