Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with Earth.
On the night of her wedding, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is struggling to be happy even though it should be the happiest day of her life. It was an extravagant wedding paid for by her sister and brother-in-law who are trying to keep the bride and all the guests in line. Meanwhile, Melancholia, a blue planet, is hurtling towards the Earth. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine's sister, is struggling to maintain composure with fear of the impending disaster.
On the day of her wedding, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is trying to keep her severe depression in check and appear happy in front of all her family and guests. But cracks begin to show under the pressure of keeping in line with the schedule set by Justine's brother-in-law, who paid for the wedding. Only Justine's sister seems to understand what she is going through, and tries to help her finish out the night, but to no avail. As the planet Melancholia bears down on Earth, Justine finds peace in the thought of imminent destruction while her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spirals into terrible anxiety.
The lives of adult sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are presented, one story centering around a specific event dedicated to each of the sisters. In Justine's story, it is the day of her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The entire day is overseen by controlling Claire, with the lavish reception, paid by Claire's wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), being held on John and Claire's vast rural and remote estate. Those closest to Justine know that she suffers from severe depression. On the surface, the reception is most affected by the interaction between Justine and Claire's estranged parents, who split long ago. However, bubbling under the surface are the interrelationships between all the major players at the wedding which may have a greater impact on what happens to Justine. While Claire and John state that everything they have done this day is to make Justine happy, most of those major players are working toward self-interest and/or truth to their inner being, including Justine's boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), who also happens to be Michael's best man. In Claire's story, which takes place a short unspecified time following the wedding, an astrological incident on the wedding day has been explained as a rogue planet, named Melancholia, having entered the solar system. According to astronomy buff John, the scientific prediction is that Melancholia will miss colliding with any of the major bodies in the solar system, including Earth. John is organizing a viewing party for the night of the best sighting of Melancholia, the party on the estate for him, Claire, their adolescent son Leo (Cameron Spurr), and Justine. While John steadfastly prepares for the party, Claire cannot help but be worried that the scientists are wrong, and that the end of the world is near. Although Justine is in a state of nearly total debilitation after arriving on the estate, due to her general depression, she ultimately evolves to a state of eerie calm, which may be a foretelling of what is to come.
On the night of her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), Justine (Kirsten Dunst) struggles with premonitions of a blue planet called Melancholia, on a collision course with the Earth. Ironically, while the ensuing oblivion brings on a condition of depressive, Melancholia, Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), struggles to maintain composure and calm around her as impending disaster unsettles everyone. The extravagant wedding, paid for by Justine's brother-in-law, is shattered as the husband and guests depart and the sisters are left to deal with the impending cataclysm alone.
- The film begins with an introductory eight-minute sequence involving the main characters and images from space and introducing many of the film's visual leitmotifs. These are virtually still/slow-motion images revealing the key elements of the film: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) the bride in deep melancholy with birds falling behind her; a lawn with trees and a sundial with two different shadows; Pieter Breughel's Hunters in the Snow (often used as interpretation of an idealized nostalgia) the non existent 19th hole (limbo) and the Black Horse collapsing catastrophically in slow motion (id/ego battle); Justine as a bride being swept along by a river; and her being held back by her wedding dress; and finally Justine and her nephew building their magic cave before planet Earth crashes into the large gas giant planet Melancholia becoming one.
The film continues in two parts.
Part One: "Justine" is of an ideal and perfect wedding that sweeps bride Justine along and which clashes with Justine's fragile world.
This act begins with an clumsy, oversized wedding vehicle unable to negotiate a curve in the road.
Newlyweds Justine and her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arrive two hours late to their own reception at the large family estate where Justine's older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) reside. Justine happens to notice a particularly bright red star in the twilight sky which John identifies as Antares.
During the course of the afternoon and evening we realize that each of the characters represent a metaphor. These metaphors are developed during the night of the wedding reception. Her brother-in-law, John, represents sacrifice (cost of the wedding) and social conformity. Dexter (John Hurt), Justine and Claire's father, is hedonistic and selfish therefore unable to connect at a meaningful level with Justine. Her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) a shrewd, brutal, ruthlessly and pathologically honest imp which gets her thrown out of the wedding. However Justine's sister, Claire, who represents order urges Justine to dishonestly hide her debilitating melancholy from her bland, gormless, doting husband, Michael, (This is highlighted by his wedding speech) and anyway who would be incapable of handling such honesty.
Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), Justine's boss, represents ruthless greed and gluttony during the most personal part of the wedding speech as he is hustling her to promote a vacuous spiritually empty campaign based on a modern facsimile of Bruegels The Land of Cockaigne (mythical land of excess) she later opens a book at this picture.
During the critical part of the wedding, cake cutting, Justine and her mother independently escape to their separate bathrooms to have bath, to cleanse themselves of the social deception of the wedding.
Later again, Justine escapes the wedding and whist watching Melancholia's approach to Earth squats and urinates on the 18th hole (ultimate success).
Her boss's nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) (ambition) is given the opportunity to exploit the opportunity to get the tag line at all costs, to promote his career, a similar task to what Justine was previously so successful at. He is later fired for his failure at absolute ruthlessness. Justine recognizing her complicity aggressively resigns. She cannot consummate her wedding with her gormless husband and goes out on a sand trap and copulates with her boss's nephew, a professional kindred spirit. He later suggests due to their similarity they form a business together, Justine curtly declines. Her gormless husband leaves.
At dawn the next day, Justine reluctantly goes horseback riding with her sister Claire when she notices that the bright red star has disappeared.
Part Two: "Claire" deals with Justine's relationship with her sister, Claire It also follows Justine's mental decay and reawakening as the inevitable Melancholia collision approaches.
The film re-opens several months later as John explains that the reason for Antares' disappearance was because the newly discovered planet Melancholia was blocking the star from view. Melancholia, a rogue gas giant planet that entered the Solar System from behind the Sun, becomes visible in the sky as it approaches ever closer to Earth. John is excited about the planet and looks forward to the "fly-by" predicted by scientists. Melancholia's first approach and final collision with Earth, as described (and shown briefly in a similar diagram) in the film.
Claire then receives a phone call from Justine telling her that she must visit them after having left her husband. She arrives a short while later by taxi, where she appears very hollow and drained of emotion. Justine takes Claire upstairs to a room for her to rest and then to have a bath.
During Justine's deepest, almost catatonic depression, her sister is unable to cleanse her in the bath. Justine is so numb that during dinner, her favorite dish offered and made specially for her by Claire, and to Justine, it tastes of ash.
Before the reception, Justine proudly claims to be the only one to ride the Black Horse; her brother-in-law, John, under his breath says that the horse is also loyal to him. As Justine further emotionally decays, her connection to the Black Horse becomes more remote and frustrated. On two occasions, the horse refuses to cross a bridge over a river to the non-existent 19th hole. As Justine disintegrates, she gets more brutal with her frustration with the horses refusal, finally mercilessly whipping it to the ground.
Claire becomes very fearful that the end of the world is imminent, in spite of her husband's reassurances that everyone will be safe. She searches the Internet and finds an article predicting that the movements of Melancholia around the Earth will bring the two planets into a full-on collision soon afterward. Justine tells her sister that she has the ability to predict with certainty events such as the number of beans in a bottle and that she is confident that Melancholia will meet with Earth, this being a good thing as life itself is evil. As the end is becoming more certain the family butler, Little Father (Jesper Christensen), disappears. On the night of the fly-by, it seems that Melancholia will merely pass very near without striking the Earth. The next day, however, Claire realizes that Melancholia is circling back and will collide with Earth after all.
The certainty that Melancholia is making its terminal rotation back to Earth is at odds with John's certainty of a safe fly-by. On realizing his fallibility, John fatally poisons himself in the Black Horses stable. Claire, on finding John dead, releases the horse. Justine has a bath, stating that she is now all clean.
Claire tries to escape the golf course but the golf cart shuts down on the same bridge, frustrating her. She returns to the lodge as the world begins its demise. Faced with the impending collision, Claire becomes distraught and suggests getting together on the terrace with wine and music. In response, a surprisingly calm yet angry Justine dismisses her idea.
Her young nephew, being scared, is reassured by Justine who says that they can be safe in a magic cave, something she has promised several times to make. This contrasts with her earlier statement during her dark melancholy that there is nowhere to hide.
The three sit in the magic cave (a wood tepee). Justine is stoic and strong as the world beautifully comes to a catastrophic end, at one with Melancholia.