It's a good thing Lars von Trier didn't consult me about making Melancholia. I might have told him using the name "Melancholia" for a planet about to collide with the Earth was too broad a metaphor and I'd have been wrong. Melancholia is a brilliantly beautiful, romantic and insightful film about depression.
The movie opens with a series of surreal, filmed still-lives, one of which reveals that Melancholia's impact with Earth is certain. Then follows the wedding reception for Kirsten Dunst's character Justine, whose inability to feel joy despite her earnest attempts to is nicely reflected by the subtly horrific meaninglessness of everything everyone does when destruction lies around the corner.
Among the surreal images in the beginning is a shot of Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow burning. The colour palette for what's been called Von Trier's most polished film seems to jive with the sort of eerie contrast in Bruegel's painting. The subject of the painting, as in much of the movie's shots, is people going about their lives with nothing nominally sinister happening, and yet the darkness of the figures and the greenish sky give the image a strange gloom.
The wedding takes place at a hotel and golf course owned by Justine's brother in law John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, whose character is a conservative amateur astronomer who dismisses dire predictions about Melancholia's course like a phoney scientist dismissing the dire predictions of climate scientists. John's one of those guys who simply can't wrap their heads around clinical depression and blames Justine for her unhappiness. But Justine exhibits behaviour demonstrating how little she can control what's happening to her--she does things she knows are wrong, like fucking a guy she just met at the wedding, because the feelings attending these actions are the only ones that seem honest to her.
So Justine develops a strange affection for Melancholia. The doom it promises puts life and her feelings in sync.
Von Trier's definitely a long way from his dogma film style here, but he shifts between carefully composed still shots and shaky, dogma-ish hand held footage. Though even the hand held segments seem as though they may have more premeditation than the dogma style allows. I don't know if the yellow lighting at the golf course was there when the location was chosen for filming, but the contrast between it and the green and blue darkness create some classic Van Gogh threatening despair.
The physics of two planets hitting each other doesn't seem accurately presented in the film, but that's okay. It serves the artistic truth. I would even call it a science fiction film, since it deals with the human reaction to the speculation of a natural phenomenon. The phenomenon may not go down exactly as it does in the movie, but I think the film covers the kinds of reactions people would have.
There's a very subtle magical element to the film, too. Justine's horse recoils from crossing a specific bridge throughout her life. It won't cross even when Justine beats it, and it seems to reflect the part of Justine that still wishes she could overcome her depression. John, in his typical materialistic pride brings up the fact that his golf course has eighteen holes, and later, when the world's ending, we see Charlotte Gainsbourg running past the nineteenth hole.
The film's score uses music from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Wagner is incredibly fitting. Few artists so perfectly evoke the grandeur and beauty of despair. Lars von Trier's here such an artist, too.
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