Where is Immanuel Velikovsky when you need him? The much maligned and largely forgotten father of the now accepted theory of global catastrophes (albeit he colored his garishly with all manner of inconclusive speculations) and crossing inter-disciplinary boundaries would have made an excellent technical advisor for this 2011 film in three parts, especially near the end when the planets are in close proximity.
The first part of this marginally SF film is brief, a series of montages before the opening credits, giving the impression that at least part of this film is a tribute to the classic “Last Year at Marienbad” given their surreal/existential nature, the formal garden with shadows projected in opposing directions, and the slow motion or frozen action of the characters. These are subjective images, events not necessarily as they are but as they might seem in a dream, or a memory. They are also a prelude of the action sequences to follow. It ends with the collision of two planets, or the ramming of a larger planet by a smaller one, either of which could be the Earth.
The second part of the film, called “Part 1: Justine,” concerns the events at a lavish formal wedding reception. One knows almost from the onset things are unlikely to turn out well when a ridiculously long stretch limo carrying only a bride and groom is unable to negotiate an equally ridiculous narrow winding road approaching a magnificent estate. One wonders if the collision of worlds seen moments before is a metaphor for marriage. Or might it be a representation of the manic depression that we come to learn is the curse of the bride?
The wedding reception takes place within a palatial building belonging to the sister and brother-in-law of the bride, who are obscenely wealthy, and who, like the long running joke in Batman, have a single manservant to maintain the house, grounds and stable one might expect would require a minimum staff of twelve or more just to stave off entropy. The reception is full of familiar faces playing largely one dimensional roles, save for the two sisters at the heart of the story. There’s Kirsten Dunst, as the bride, Justine, who has mood swings, leans toward depression and needs innumerable time-outs during the proceedings just to keep things together. There’s Charlotte Gainsboug as Clair, the older sister, the strong one who makes every effort to bolster the needy Justine. There’s Kiefer Sutherland as Clair’s staid husband and amateur astronomer, John, so nouveau riche he even stoops in a moment of pique to remind Justine how much money the reception is costing him so she better enjoy it. There’s the acute Charlotte Rampling as the caustic feminist witch and mother of the bride who does her utmost to spoil the wedding with her barbed tongue. There’s the versatile John Hurt as the bumbling jokester father of the bride. There’s the always capable Stellan Skarsgard as the best man and Justine’s controlling boss who seeks repeatedly to pressure her into revealing the “tag line” for their latest project before her honeymoon. There’s Udo Kier as the uber annoying wedding planner. And there’s Alexander Skarsgård, as Michael, the love struck groom who has entered into a relationship infinitely more volatile than ever he imagined. If you had forgotten exactly why and how much you hated weddings before this one ends in utter disarray, this film will remind you.
Exactly half way through the film, right before the end of “Part 1” and the disaster that is her wedding, a much larger impending global disaster is first mentioned. It seems a wandering planet has been found heading toward earth from the far side of the sun—that the unsettling image from the opening credits is a bit more than just a metaphor.
Part three is called “Part 2: Claire,” and once again takes place on the same manicured estate so far removed from the hectic struggles for survival most of the rest of us experience (yet another homage to “Last Year at Marienbad.”) The cast has now been pared down to the two sisters, Clair’ husband, their young son, and the ubiquitous butler.
Justine, almost a vegetable due to her depression, joins Claire and her family at her sister’s insistence. Initially Claire is the caregiver. Melancholia, the oddly named wandering planet, is suddenly the driving force behind everything. John is convinced that according to all credible scientific evidence the planets will pass near one another without colliding, that the encounter will be a “fly-by,” an event not to be missed. Claire, on the other hand, is not so sure. At first she allows herself to be consoled by John until she gives in to her fears, stoked by internet speculation on exactly when and how the worlds will collide in a “dance of death.” Meanwhile Justine goes from being totally helpless, to worshiping the wandering planet, to reversing roles with Claire as the inevitable disaster becomes immanent.
According to Wikipedia, the director, “Trier's initial inspiration for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered and the insight that depressed people remain calm in stressful situations.” Those who approach the film thinking it is strictly SF, even agonizingly slow paced SF like “2001,” will be disappointed. It is a mood piece, with SF trappings, flirting with the existential when not lost within its meandering mood swings. Beautifully filmed, directed, well cast, and acted, “Melancholia” is one of those movies that defy pigeonholing. The oft loudly played prelude to Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" lets one know the film is meant to be “German Romanticism,” and eventually becomes the theme song for the roving planet, but there’s a bit more to the film than that. Perhaps one’s first impressions were correct—perhaps the impending collision that colors much of the action in the final act is a symbol for the ever-present melancholia that threatens to overtake us all.
Not for everyone, it is a film worth seeing by those who can enjoy their entertainment both abstract and vivid. Available on DVD. Surely headed for cable.