If you didn’t know that Melancholia is a film about the end of the world, the opening is a plot spoiler in itself. This slow-moving prologue, set to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is a director’s tribute - part 2001: A Space Odyssey and part Hitchcock dream sequence.
It’s a multi-genre affair. As Sci-Fi, the science is mostly fantasy. As the apocalypse approaches, cars won’t start but the electric golf buggy does. Just suspend all disbelief at the beginning.
It has all the key elements of the wedding movie complete with bizarre, dysfunctional family. Mother (Charlotte Rampling) is the embarrassing speechmaker. (John Hurt) is the unlikely father, a serial sleaze enchanted with womanhood in the guise of numerous Bettys. Though he’s not the one to have gratuitous sex in a bunker.
At several levels, it is a bitter, mostly humourless society farce. Justine’s tagline for the boss of her Public Relations firm: “Nothing is too good for you!” The setting is a private castle complete with 18-hole golf course, bridal path and exquisite gardens. It’s a biting but essentially unoriginal satire of Western decadence and the conspicuously wealthy. Lars seems to be trying to prove that old aphorism about not being rich and happy. He can’t be a golfer.
The cast is a high-powered gathering. Apparently, Kirsten Dunst was not first choice for the lead but she fits perfectly. Her droopy eyelids and glassy stare are naturals for the deeply disturbed Justine. Charlotte Gainsbourg is convincing as timid sister Claire who fits the other definition of melancholia of having “ill-grounded fears”, except that this time she’s on the money.
Kiefer Sutherland as brother-in-law John seems happier as filthy-rich capitalist than as astronomer buff. His timely exit is as much a plot device as a statement on his character. He just doesn’t need to come between the sisters any longer.
The two Skarsgårds, Alexander as naïve, reality-challenged husband Michael and Stellan as evil boss Jack, are quite adequate in their roles but they’re not the main game. In fact Abraham, Justine’s favourite mount from the flash stables, will probably remain more memorable. Cameron Spurr, as Claire’s young son Leo, is no scene-stealer but he stays the course.
Melancholia is clearly an allegory. You can pick your own lessons. Justine is not just suffering from the 21st Century pandemic of depression. She is surrounded by a pack of cynical black dogs who seem to have lost the capacity for happiness.
In some ways she belongs to the dark side of 19th century romanticism. Her melancholy finds no joy in anything. Ironically, she discovers calm, purpose and inner peace when preparing her magic cave for the end.