Directed by Lars von Trier
Zentropa Entertainments, 136 mins. R (nudity)
Let me be clear about this film – I have no idea what van Trier is trying to say. However, he says a great deal and lays on the mystery so thick it’s hard to breathe. Everything that happens is so unreal that it could be metaphor, heavy symbolism, both, neither, or something clear only to von Trier. The deal is this: Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet named Melancholia may or may not be on a collision course with Earth. The film opens with a spoiler – it’s the end of the film we appear to be watching, though the actual end of it is somewhat different. So we are actually beyond the end at the very beginning? Confused? I suspect you will be.
The two sisters are Justine–Kirsten Dunst in a typical von Trier role of damaged woman–and Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a more levelheaded character. The film’s first section is titled “Justine” and recounts her disastrous wedding day. She and her doting husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arrive late for her wedding dinner at a huge country house and grounds, where the entire film is set. (Film buffs will be amused at the Last Days in Marienbad reference in the house’s ground.) The party is fraught with discomfort, hilarity, unease and bewilderment featuring excellent cameos from Charlotte Rampling as Gaby, Justine’s angst-ridden, cynical mother, and John Hurt as Dexter, her fun-loving and slightly daft father. Against a backdrop of embarrassing speeches, the amoral designs of Justine’s advertising-industry boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), the first observations of Melancholia, Justine’s battles with personal demons, and the gathering impatience of brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) who is paying a king’s ransom for the reception, we witness Justine’s marriage dissolving before it’s even consummated (or at least consummated with Michael).
Part two, “Claire,” seems to probe her character in opposition to Justine’s. Claire is decent, nurturing, and levelheaded, though she too becomes more disturbed as Melancholia approaches. I confess that at this point I was struggling to piece together disparate scenes to form coherence. However, the cinematography was stunning and as a possible companion piece to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, to which there are filmic similarities, it left a sense of wonder over non-earthy things. But nothing was really taking shape except the fear of the travelling planet and I considered that maybe that was all there was to it!
But I’ll take some guesses here: that Melancholia is a metaphor for the inevitability of bad times? No, too glib. A portent of disasters to come? Way too simple. That the two sisters’ apparent behaviors are symptomatic of all over-emotional beings? That’ll never stick. So I confess I am puzzled. However, the film resonates with some visual mystery, and the performances are brilliant (especially Gainsbourg, though Dunst won a Best Actress award at Cannes). I guess it’s too much to expect von Trier to communicate in a direct fashion. Oddly threaded though the oblique screenplay is some very dark humor, but is that enough? In the London cinema where I saw Melancholia, there were seven others watching. In the adjoining cinema, Drive was sold out. Violence packs ‘em in.
Melancholia: A Response
* * * *
I agree with Lloyd that Melancholia was a mess in places, but for me it was a sublime mess. We’ve seen end-of-the-world films before, but never has it been filmed as beautifully as the opening five minutes of this film. It is, simply, an elegiac, poetic, and transformative piece of filmmaking. It’s so riveting, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine what Director Lars von Trier could have done to follow it.
Lloyd had trouble with the second part of the film; for me, von Trier stumbled in the first half. The wedding sequence simply takes too long to establish a single idea: that Justine embodies melancholia long before she’s heard of the eponymous Doomsday planet. Moreover, disastrous weddings are so clichéd that to establish Justine’s character through such a device seems especially hackneyed when juxtaposed to the bold opening.
I also agree with Lloyd that the film is, at best, enigmatic. I suspect von Trier wanted it to be that way. After all, if we really were facing the end of all time, how would we react? By leaving threads dangle, as it were, von Trier leaves us to ponder such things. It may not be as satisfying as the resolve-all-issues fare we’re force-fed at sticky-floored malls near you, but isn’t it a hell of a lot more honest?
Here’s my take on the film, though I freely confess that it’s speculative. I see Justine as Fate; she’s the Greek moira in one body. Have we ever considered what the Fates thought as they spun, measured, and cut the destinies of all others and finally got to the task of their own demise? And would not knowing it induce depression interspersed with despondency; that is, melancholia? Justine first realizes that she is the walking dead when her beloved horse refuses to cross a bridge; in folklore, ghosts cannot cross water.
I see Claire as the Spirit of Life, clinging desperately to hope, nurturing her son, and both literally and figuratively tending her garden to the bitter end. Surrounding Justine and Claire are cameos that represent the Seven Deadly Sins: the upper-class twits stuffing their faces as gluttony; Gaby is wrath pronouncing doom to any hint of happiness; her devil-take-care ex-husband Dexter is sloth, content to have fleshy women at his side as he overdoes already shopworn jokes; Michael is envy, desirous of Justine’s beauty and wealth, but too laconic to battle for her affections; the rapacious Jack is greed; Jack’s bootlick assistant Tim is lust, one so stupid that he confuses a depressed woman’s one-off with him as having had “good sex;” and the cocksure John is pride trying to will Melancholia out of harm’s way and whose courage falters in the wake of classic hubris.
Melancholia becomes, then, a clash between competing belief systems: ancient Greek, Medieval Latin Catholicism, modern-day cynicism, and humanitarianism. Lars von Trier also makes brilliant use of a Richard Wagner’ opera throughout (from Tristan und Isolde), music that is simultaneously dramatic and terrifying, yet dignified in a funereal fashion-–appropriate ambiguous music for a puzzling film. But von Trier does seem to be telling us one thing very clearly: when the end comes, no belief system will save us. The demise will be sudden, inevitable, and perhaps even beautiful.