But then we get to the narrative part, and it’s strangely disquieting of its own accord. It seems there’s this bride and groom, all decked out in their full wedding regalia, sitting in the back seat of an enormous limousine, lurching along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Apparently they’re on their way to an elaborate reception at a remote destination, but we’re not sure if there was ever a ceremony in the first place. When they finally arrive, it appears that they’re a full two hours late, but that doesn’t seem to bother them any, as the bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), insists on stopping by the stables first to greet her horse? Yeah, whatever.
Inside the palatial country estate, it seems that her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) are not only anxiously awaiting their arrival; they are also footing the bill, which, they pointedly and repeatedly claim is enormous. This appears to be an attempt to keep Justine placid, focused and irrepressibly radiant, but that doesn’t last for long. It seems that her mom, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), and her dad, Dexter (John Hurt), shamelessly use their “speech” occasions to lambast each other. That sets a nice tone.
The wedding planners are beside themselves because everything is so off-schedule, but Justine just doesn’t care. She appears to lose interest, going upstairs to luxuriate in the bathtub, alone, and has to be coaxed back to the reception, where the incredibly patient guests are still waiting for her to cut the cake. More conflicts with big sis, who says, more than once, “Sometimes I really hate you.” Meanwhile, John throws Gaby’s luggage out the door, Dexter takes up with a young tart and escapes, the father of the groom instructs an assistant from work to follow Justine, to keep her in line, and they enjoy an inappropriate encounter out on the spacious grounds, while the groom is still anxiously waiting in the bridal suite, having been told by his blushing bride that she needs more time before actually considering consummating. Hmmm. More relational drudgery, and now pretty much everyone is miserable.
All this might be comically tragic, even farcical, except there’s an air of urgency and immediacy that renders it as even more offhanded lunacy than it appears. It seems there’s a very large mass from space (asteroid? moon? planet?) that’s supposed to be a “near miss,” but oops, somebody miscalculated, and it looks like it’s going to hit after all. Wait, that’s what happened to the dinosaurs, right?
Kirsten Dunst, who is best known for shallow little cute girlfriend roles in the “Spider Man” movies, here delivers a mature, seasoned, nuanced performance in which she’s alternately insouciant, petty, obsequious, randy, oblivious, rude, catatonic, playful, exhausted, vindictive, mercurial, and flamboyant, a truly multi-dimensional character. But in light of the coming apocalypse, all the histrionics seem themselves irrelevant.
It’s interesting, to a practicing Christian, to watch a movie about the approaching parousia without a single mention of God, faith, angels, Jesus, repentance, salvation or redemption. All we have is scientific curiosity displaced by a strangely lethargic combination of sheer terror and abject acceptance.
“Melancholia” is definitely for the adventurous moviegoer only.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.