I suppose Melancholia is science fiction. It consists of two long halves after a wonderful prologue. In the first half, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are just married. They are playful and happy as they arrive for their lavish reception at the vast country estate that is the home of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). There is much familiar upper-crust domestic drama, but it becomes apparent that Justine is suffering from horrific depression, her behavior increasingly unpredictable and outlandish. We are left as helpless as Michael to prevent her from being overtaken entirely by her malaise.
In the second half, washed out after the richly colorful reception, we focus on John and Claire, their young son, and Justine. As Justine recuperates, they live under the shadow of the imminent arrival in Earth’s vicinity of a planet Melancholia. John’s position is of scientific wonderment. He insists that the experts have declared no risk of a collision and educates his son in his amateur astronomy. Claire reads conspiratorial websites that predict apocalyptic doom (in the movie technology tradition, the scenes of her internet search for information are jarringly unrealistic). As time goes on and the situation grows dire, Justine, like a see-saw, the role of the calm, sensible realist as those around her shrink in fear.
Ultimately then we can contrast Justine’s breakdown at the reception and Claire’s breakdown in the face of death, and, parallel, the reaction of each to the other. Is Justine growing absolutely in strength as disaster approaches, or only relative to Claire? She is as resilient to terror in the second half as she is drained of all high emotion in the first. It is telling that Claire is tender and indulgent of Justine, but as her own anxiety grows, Justine refuses to coddle or reassure her. Justine’s bluntness seems almost shaded with a slight vindictiveness. It is horribly obvious that the sisters are worlds apart mentally, that Claire’s terror and Justine’s depression are entirely dissimilar. It is remarkable that the tangible, rational distress of second-half Claire never for a moment trivializes Justine’s illness: Justine’s outlandish behavior at the reception seems easier to grasp after we see the collapse of the first half’s healthier characters. All private distress gets equal billing.
The planet Melancholia is hinted at only very lightly in the first half of the film, although it is unambiguous, particularly in retrospect, that everyone is aware of it. Is life going on regardless? Despite its name, I wondered exactly how much to read it as a manifestation of her depression. For her to be summoning it would be too much of a stretch, but I got the feeling that Justine at least understands what it means for the people around her, maybe in some sense has already encountered it. By the time the private apocalypse is completed, it has proved that the pragmatic rationalist John and the kindly caregiver Claire are both utterly useless against it. But all along Justine it completely unfazed. Dunst shows Justine coming slowly into focus as she comes into her element, her brilliant portrait of depression complete.
The prologue: before the action of the movie begins, we open with a long sequence of exceptional and striking beauty. The entire film will take place on the vast country estate, and we see long, posed tableaux of the main players in their reception dress in various places around the estate. The shots are in agonizingly heavy slow motion, saturated with almost ultraviolet color, all incredibly rich, dark purples, greens and blacks. The sequence previews in an oblique and abstract way some of the touching points for the rest of the film. I found the whole effect entirely disarming and captivating. I would call it Gothic if that didn’t seem like such faint praise – it was somehow like the checkerboard in Lewis Carroll’s second “Alice” book “Through the Looking-Glass”, with the cast set up as helplessly immobile players as they went about their business with the world crashing around them.