Usually the mood of even the most engrossing and transporting movie stays with me for a few hours or overnight, at most. But Lars von Trier’s latest and perhaps best film, Melancholia, hung around the fringes of my psyche for weeks, like dark matter – invisible but exerting a strange gravity.
On reviewing clips and photo stills, I began to understand why: it is the director’s skillful use of color that makes the story so sublimely unsettling and affecting.
Film directors often use color to reflect subtext – to cue emotional states of characters, for instance, or to foreshadow events. But in this case von Trier uses color as a story element itself.
The arc of the central character Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a carefully plotted slide into melancholy and nihilism.
The film’s central metaphor for Justine’s emotional journey is a rogue planet (named Melancholia) moving toward a collision with earth.
As the planet moves closer, it literally changes the color of the earth’s daylight, from warm and intimate yellows and oranges to cold and distancing blues and grays. More than just a stylistic choice, this change of color palette over the course of the film is integral to the unfolding plot.
On the left are scenes from the first part of the film; at right are scenes from the second half:
The approaching planet literally casts a cold blue pall over the earth, bringing us to the precipice of non-existence in a way dialogue or even music could never do.
When a story reaches us in such a visceral way, it’s impossible not to be affected. Like the people of planet earth, there’s just no place to run and hide from Melancholia.