Written & Directed by Lars von Trier / Release (Limited): Nov 11, 2011 / Magnolia Pictures / R, 2 hr. 15 min
For those of you that struggle with chronic anxiety and depression, please remain calm. Lars von Trier — the Danish auteur mastermind (and former Dogme 95 co-founder) behind such Sartre-approved existential morsels as Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, and the life-altering Antichrist — is at it again in Melancholia. Only this time it’s about a more archetypal, timeless dread: The end of the world. Worse yet, an apocalyptic end to all life on earth by a rogue planet, “Melancholia,” which (in chapter 1 of the film) was big enough to eclipse Antares, the red über-giant star of the Milky Way.
If the above paragraph stinks of a critical spoiler to you, rest assured that the ending is Melancholia’s opening giveaway conceit. Its overture flauntingly sets the stage for its denouement: A stream of dreamy murals set against a leitmotif of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. These thematic tableaux include a bride (Kirsten Dunst) walking through a gnarly forest, while gooey tree roots clutch at her ankles and limbs. Another is of a plainclothed woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who (half-buried in tall foliage) walks toward the camera while an auburn-haired boy carves the bark off a large tree branch with a paring knife. Another is of a saddled, downed horse that is struggling to stand up again (in reverse, fastidious slo-mo).
Lastly, we have the finalizing spectacle of Melancholia (many times the earth’s size) swallowing our planet whole like an enormous cancer cell from hell. It is an amalgam of Brothers Grimm-inspired imagery and planetary spectacle, seemingly running at 1,000 frames per second.
For Trier vets, it is a technique he employed for the opening sequence of his psychosexual horror opus, Antichrist (2009). Here, Trier’s avant-garde sensibilities toward preambles are more refined, though. While the prologue is suspect of being a disparate whim in lieu of the linear narrative that follows, these introductory images serve a purpose. Thrown into the mind of a soothsayer’s R.E.M. premonition, these set pieces come to life in more tangible ways later in the film — one that poignantly condenses the essence of human frailty and the scary indifference of a universe we know barely anything about.
The two-chapter crux of Melancholia’s story takes place on a large estate that boasts a 19-hole golf course. The castle-esque mansion that sits atop these vast acres of land belongs to John (Kiefer Sutherland), a wealthy landowner and astronomy enthusiast. Almost as a colossally expensive favor to his wife, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he throws a fairytale wedding for his sister-in-law, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and her husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).
The celebration is a private, decked out affair of family members, which includes Justine and Claire’s estranged parents, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and Dexter (John Hurt), whose matriarch has lost touch with social tact and compassion; and offers what’s the probably the worst wedding toast in the history of mankind. In fact, the entire ceremony (and the reception that follows it) is plagued with Justine’s gnawing, inherent malcontent with leading a halcyonic life with Michael. A life that her psychiatric disposition (however it may be classified by the DSM-IV) renders into the big, fat, all-American lie that she believes it is: Material complacency. It’s enough to throw Justine into unmanageable bouts of Gemini sadness while she stows away into the many unoccupied rooms and spaces of the mansion. Here, she doesn’t have to feign any smiles.
Her disappearances throughout the wedding become more and more salient and troubling (particularly to increasingly vexed financier, John). While the vows are eventually exchanged, cake slices swapped, and the bouquet thrown, it can’t stop Justine from committing the unpardonable sin of consummating said vows with a hapless young man (Brady Corbet) in a sand trap, shortly after denying Michael that privilege in their honeymoon suite.
Still, no amount of human misery can compete with the ensemble cast’s cursory awareness of the “fly by” star that gradually grows larger and larger in the night sky, spelling the immanent conclusion of life on earth. It is this juxtaposition between the microcosmic collision of estranged human beings and the macrocosmic collision of Melancholia and earth where von Trier deftly bores deep into the primal anxiety of his viewers. In short, the film has no peak. There is no midpoint; no climax. It is a two-plus hour incline with no declivity.
In the film’s second chapter, for instance, Justine returns to the estate as a defeated mess. Still unmarried. She can’t bathe herself, sleep, eat, or follow life’s prescribed circadian rhythms. Here, the film begins to close in on our primal fears of familial unrest — particularly during a time of economic instability, class warfare and political disunity. Justine has adopted the edict that human beings, and the planet they inhabit, are inherently evil, and deserve to be destroyed. She has a preternatural relationship with Melancholia, one that directly opposes her brother-in-law’s faith in the scientific community, which is convinced that Melancholia is a benign star that will fly by our planet; not collide with it.
Claire, on the other hand, represents our innate understanding of the uncompromising laws of the universe; which don’t make the preservation of human life a priority (not like we do). Her anxiety is guttural, and it is the barest and most honest reaction to the end-of-world reality of the film. Dunst and Gainsbourg’s performances are unnerving here, particularly when paired in scenes where their stages of grief are grossly misaligned. Justine is cruel, hollow, and apathetic towards her sister; Gainsbourg’s Claire is desperately clawing at splinters of hope, and is painfully forgiving of Justine’s acrimony. Ultimately, their one shared concern is to make the end of the world just a little bit easier on Claire’s son, Leo (Cameron Spurr).
While Melancholia is billed as Dunst’s show, Gainsbourg usurps the spotlight with her unsettling portrayal (a more effective actress). Naturally, this may be a consequence of how Trier wrote the characters. Barring one scene at the dinner table in chapter 2, Dunst’s Justine is very nuanced and numbed, and the pain she captures is compulsorily subtle. Yet, with Justine, we don’t have much to work with beyond a botched wedding featuring a bride with an extreme case of cold feet. In chapter 1, the final bits of dialogue between her and Michael hint at her history of bipolar issues (hence Micheal’s bewildering stoicism in face of his wife’s erratic behavior), but it doesn’t seem to set up enough of a backdrop to justify her emotional frigidity in the second chapter.
Still, Trier’s storytelling restraint is also a strength. Nothing is extraneous or spelled out for us. We’re given just enough visual and audio data to piece together a full-bodied narrative ourselves. Trier doesn’t focus on apocalypse-blockbuster tropes. No TV broadcasts, fast-thinking Pentagon officials, multi-character global heroics, time stamped captions, or last-minute pseudoscience deus ex machinas, courtesy of an alliance between NASA and the US military. It is a febrile character study set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Not the other way around.
All the while, Trier eases our pain by editing together some of the most hauntingly beautiful stretches of cinematography I’ve seen in years. The surreality of his floating aerial shots of Justine and Claire horseback riding through a wooded, fog-engorged path is worth the price of admission alone. While we can certainly question the very purpose of this film (as much as we could the masturbatory exercise that was Antichrist), there is little doubt that Trier is a uniquely gifted filmmaker that largely uses film as “therapy.” The medium by which he exorcises his personal demons. Some might call that solipsistic and selfish (and perhaps irresponsible), but what justifies Melancholia is its debonair ability to hold back on didactic excess. It represents a sliver of the human experience where hope and faith are (sometimes) empirically absent.
In Melancholia, I don’t see a cautionary tale (as I did with Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream), I see a piece of the collective human psyche that fears utter meaninglessness. Purposelessness in the face of mortality and human fragility. The sun will not always rise in the east and set in the west.
The silent irony of Melancholia‘s existence is an unspoken message: Live your life as fruitfully as you can; and hug your loved ones tight. Now, if only Lars could cheer up a little.