For all the time we spend with two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose reactions to the world’s end define the film’s two chapters – it feels like von Trier is in it just for a few images set to music from Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’. We see the best of them in an opening montage: a moon and a planet cast shadows across a garden at night; Dunst’s character floats in water in a nod to Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ and a planet swallows up Earth.
Apathy or engagement, looking inwards or outwards, the expression of depression… these are some of the film’s themes. The first chapter, ‘Justine’, plays out at her wedding in a country house. These scenes are recognisably by the von Trier of old, shot in a handheld style, with jump cuts and flippant talk. The dialogue, though, feels jarring and bogus. For the second chapter, ‘Claire’, the wedding is over, and we’re left at the house. This is where the film feels without a proper script, and Dunst and Gainsbourg flap through scenes of false emotion as Claire is terrified in contrast to Justine’s ultra-passive attitude to the coming apocalypse.
Strip away the Wagner, the opening and a few arresting images, and we’re left with too much filler that feels under-developed, uninteresting and underwhelming. The best of ‘Melancholia’ would make a great photography exhibition. The rest is best forgotten.