Melancholia is Lars von Trier’s meditation on depression, marriage, and the end of the world. The film begins with the extravagant wedding of Julie (Kirsten Dunst), an advertising executive who is in the early stages of a major depressive episode. The depressed bride — it’s such a simple idea that crystallizes the expectations placed on depressed people and their inability to meet them. Everyone keeps insisting they just want Julie to be happy. Her brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), goes so far as to demand she adhere to the “deal” they made — he picks up the tab for her lavish wedding, and, in exchange, she should be happy. But what John and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) really want is for Julie to behave — they don’t want any “unpleasantness.” And neither does her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), or her smarmy boss and the best man (Stellan Skarsgård), who spends the wedding celebration harassing her to provide a tagline for a new ad campaign. Von Trier makes strong and controversial statements about marriage: it is suffocating and soul-crushing and one should avoid it at all costs. The wedding as the joyful beginning makes no appearance here except as a gloss that never reaches below the surface.
In the backdrop is the story of the planet, Melancholia, which is hurtling towards Earth. Scientists say it will pass by; doomsday prophets say there will be a direct hit and the world will end. The drawing nearer of the planet coincides with the devolving of Julie’s condition. Her depression becomes so bad she is barely able to walk. There is a sense of inevitability at work. The depressed person is unable to believe things will get better, so they don’t — it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The second half of the film focuses on Claire’s attempts to deal with the weight of all this: her sister’s worsening condition, her fears about the obliteration of the Earth, and her efforts to shield her young son from both. As always with von Trier, there are staggering beautiful visuals but a throughline of doom — he is the modern architect of the Greek tragedy and Melancholia is true to form.