There have been some memorable, intense, and eye-catching opening scenes in several recent films: Hugo, A Serious Man, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Tree of Life to name a few. But the first five minutes of a film have rarely been more important.
Melancholia gives itself away in haunting and bizarre frames before the first scene even begins, revealing its story, characters, and ending in the prologue… Only there’s no way to decode these isolated, disturbing images as they flash across the screen. That is until you’ve experienced the totality of the story. Sometimes we only know the story by it’s ending, and even then, many of our favorite and most significant stories remain elusive.
This is a simple film by Lars von Trier about two sisters encountering the end of the world. The first half of the film is titled “Justine” and shares the story of the melancholy of Justine [played by Kirsten Dunst] on her wedding day. How are you living? What are you trying to hold together? What patterns, scripts, or charades are you (perhaps needlessly) following? To what end?
The second half of the film is titled “Claire,” named after Justine’s type-A sister, and is set against the backdrop of an impending planetary collision. How will you die? Not the particulars of your death, but what is your posture towards dying? What will you discover you are made of as you face the reality of your own mortality?
The conclusion is not final, however. Like any good story, it refuses to answer all of our questions. The film is more about exploring how to see and experience life and death: together, in sequence, abandoning ritual, or clinging to it tightly. We will all die but we won’t all face death, or life, in the same way. Rather, we’re left wondering, do the melancholy among us see life and death more clearly than the rest of us?
Extra Credit – Do yourself a cerebral and spiritual favor and unpack this film alongside Take Shelter - both films are apocalyptic stories worthy of thoughtful comparison.
Enjoy via Netflix Instant Stream.