Melancholia is a 2011 apocalyptic drama film written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland. The narrative revolves around two sisters during and shortly after the wedding party of one of them, while Earth is about to collide with an approaching rogue planet. The film prominently features music from Richard Wagner's prelude to his opera Tristan und Isolde.
Trier's initial inspiration for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered and the insight that depressives remain calm in stressful situations. The film is a Danish production by Zentropa, with international co-producers in Sweden, France, Germany and Italy. Filming took place in Sweden.
The film premiered in May 2011 at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. Dunst received the festival's Best Actress Award for her performance. Prior to the awards, the press conference for the film after its screening gained notoriety when the director made in jest awkward references to Hitler and the Nazis, which led the festival to declare him "persona non grata" and for which he apologized and later retracted.
The film begins with a dream-like introductory sequence involving several of the main characters and images from space. A planet is shown threateningly approaching Earth. The introduction ends with a planetary collision. The film is then divided into two parts.
In part one, called Justine, the young couple Justine and Michael are getting married at a castle. The glamorous and expensive party is far from successful, as Justine's divorced parents are openly fighting at the dinner. Justine herself is alienated from her sister Claire, her new husband, her advertising-executive boss and her parents. She drifts away from the party, and becomes increasingly sad and desperate during the night. At several occasions, she looks at a specific star, which seems to shine brighter than normal. Claire's husband John says it is the star Antares, and later in the film the star disappears. At the end of the party, Michael leaves Justine, implying that their marriage is called off.
In part two, called Claire, Justine has become severely depressed. She stays with Claire and John, who live in the castle where the party took place with their son Leo. Justine is unable to carry out normal everyday activities like taking a bath or even eating, but gets better over time. It turns out that the reason for Antares' disappearance was the rogue planet Melancholia, which had eclipsed the star. Melancholia, a blue telluric planet (or super-earth), becomes visible in the sky, approaching Earth. John, who is keen on astronomy, is excited about the planet, and looks forward to the "fly-by" expected by scientists, who supposedly assure that Earth and Melancholia will pass by each other without colliding.
Claire is very fearful and believes the end of the world is imminent. She does a search on the Internet and finds a site describing the movements of the planet Melancholia around Earth as a dance of death. On the night of the fly-by, it seems like John was right, as Melancholia indeed passes by Earth in a near-miss. After the fly-by, background birdsong abruptly ceases, recalling the falling leaves and dead birds glimpsed behind Justine in the opening frames of the film. Horses calm down from an earlier state of agitation.
However, this is a false respite. As Claire suddenly notices after she views the rogue planet through Leo's makeshift 'planet viewer', Melancholia is circling back and will collide with Earth after all. John, who also discovers that the end is near, commits suicide through a pill overdose. His dead body is found by Claire, who decides to conceal it from Leo and Justine. She talks to her sister Justine, who is unperturbed by the impending doom. Justine says she doesn't believe life exists elsewhere in the universe. Claire becomes increasingly fraught, trying futilely to act in response to the oncoming destruction and to protect Leo from the inevitable. In contrast, Justine has become calm and silent, seemingly accepting the forthcoming apocalypse. Their relationship has become inverted, with Claire now dependent on Justine for emotional and psychological support.
Justine tries to comfort Leo (who seems to help her dealing with the depression) by building a protective "magic cave", a symbolic shelter made out of wooden sticks. Justine, Claire and Leo enter the shelter as the planet approaches. Claire is agitated and fearful, while Justine and Leo remain calm and hold hands. Melancholia then collides with Earth, destroying it, bringing the film to an abrupt end.
Kirsten Dunst ... Justine
Charlotte Gainsbourg ... Claire
Kiefer Sutherland ... John
Charlotte Rampling ... Gaby
John Hurt ... Dexter
Alexander Skarsgård ... Michael
Stellan Skarsgård ... Jack
Brady Corbet ... Tim
Udo Kier ... Wedding planner
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
James Cagnard ... Michael's Father
Jesper Christensen ... Little Father
Stefan Cronwall ... Bröllopsgäst
Deborah Fronko ... Michael's mother
Cameron Spurr ... Leo
Directed by Lars von Trier
Produced by Meta Louise Foldager
Written by Lars von Trier