by Pat Perry
“The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.”
Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is, in the simplest terms, the story of a wedding, two sisters and the end of the world.
At its deepest level, it presents the destruction of the earth as metaphor for a clinical depression that renders all human ritual and activity essentially meaningless and futile.
It’s a work of science fiction as well, although the science it’s based on is apparently specious. Type “Melancholia movie science” into any search engine, and you’ll find a plethora of posts by scientists (both amateur and professional) grumbling about the “implausible” planetary “dance of death” that winds a slow and sinister thread through the film to its explosive climax.(In a nutshell, they’ll tell you it’s impossible for a planet to come out of hiding from behind the sun and smash into the earth within a matter of days, per the film’s depiction. Rather, those unlikely events would play out over many years.)
As apocalyptic dramas go, Melancholia is unusually intimate in scope and decidedly low-tech. It’s not so much about the end of all mankind as it is about the end of a small, sequestered family group. The deadly approach of the rogue planet is mostly measured through a loop of wire attached to a stick.
But this is a Lars Von Trier film, and Von Trier has never played to standard audience expectations. Like all of his best work, Melancholia is equal parts transcendent and absurd – chilling or heartbreaking in one moment, completely wack-a-doo in the next. I well remember seeing it on its opening night in 2011 at a suburban art-house theater; the audience hooted with derision throughout much of it, and many of them complained noisily all the way out of the auditorium. (What had they been expecting? Obviously these people had not been fans of Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, let alone Anti-Christ. Or even seen them, for than matter.) My boyfriend also hated it and we had a fairly rancorous argument about it on the drive home. But that’s the way it goes with the director I fondly refer to as Mr. Shaky-Cam Provocateur – he’s a divider, not a uniter. Based on my experiences of discussing his other films, I’m looking forward to some lively debate on the comments thread for this post.
The film commences with a striking but enigmatic series of still and slow-motion shots depicting, among other things, dead birds falling from the sky around a gloomy young woman (Kirsten Dunst), a shot of the same woman in a bridal gown attempting to stride through a thicket of gray, wooly growth attaching itself to her legs, and a beautiful yet terrifying image of the earth being destroyed in a collision with a much larger planet. All are underscored by Wagner’s mournful overture to “Tristan und Isolde” (which will become a recurring theme on the soundtrack.) This prologue is lovely to look at but utterly baffling on your first viewing of the film; the meaning of those images will become much clearer once you have seen it. They comprise a sort of cryptic trailer for the film to come. (Manohla Dargis exhaustively analyzed the sequence in this memorable New York Times article.)
The two sisters of the film’s narrative are played, impeccably, by Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Dunst’s Justine is the subject of the film’s first chapter, which shows her slowly unraveling through her own lavish wedding reception. If her early scenes as a giggly, rapturous bride seem so over the top as to be fake, that is by intention. Justine, it soon becomes apparent, is a severely depressed woman, trying to desperately to be happy and grateful for her new husband and party they’ve been given. (“I am trying! I smile and I smile and I smile,” she pleads to her concerned, scolding sister.) To the bafflement of her sweet, patient groom (Alexander Skarsgard) and the increasing irritation of her sister and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), Justine wanders in and out of the party at random, stepping out to take a bath or a nap, to put her nephew to bed, or to seek assurance from her cold-hearted mother (Charlotte Rampling) who’s hiding out in a bedroom doing yoga stretches. Just as she’s about to consummate her marriage, Justine announces that she “needs a moment” and leaves her husband with his pants literally down, while she heads out to find, mount and furiously hump a co-worker on the lawn. When it’s time to toss her bouquet, she stares at the guests in a near-catatonic state until her frustrated sister finally grabs the flowers and throws them to the waiting women herself in a flourish of fed-up fury.
Von Trier has called a Melancholia a comedy, and some of these scenes are indeed funny after a dark, absurdist fashion. Mostly though, the wedding reception gives us the opportunity to see Justine presented with every single thing her family and friends believe should make her happy – and finding meaning in exactly none of it. Von Trier made the film after suffering a debilitating bout of depression himself, and his sympathies with Justine are all too apparent here. Nearly everyone at the party is an exaggerated caricature of shallowness or pettiness. From the brother-in-law who keeps reminding Justine how much the party is costing him to the boss who’s pushing her to deliver one more advertising tagline to the sister fussing over a tightly scheduled list of wedding reception activities, there isn’t one person who doesn’t appear ridiculous and oblivious to the fact that Justine is not merely selfish but desperately ill.
In a sense, there are actually four “characters” at the center of this film and it’s at the start of the wedding reception that another of them appears: Melancholia, a huge planet which Justine glimpses as a distant red star in the evening sky. By the film’s second act, Melancholia has become clearly visible, a milky blue-white orb looming ominously in the above and on a deadly collision course with the Earth (Or a ‘fly by” if you believe Claire’s husband, who plays down the danger to calm his near-hysterical wife. “Melancholia will pass in front of us, and it will the most beautiful sight ever,” he assures her, and the irony of that statement won’t be lost on anyone.)
In the second chapter (titled “Claire” for the sister played by Gainsbourg), the story takes a more harrowing turn. Justine arrives at her sister’s home so severely depressed that she can barely function; nevertheless, Claire fusses over amenities (fresh flowers on the bed table, a chocolate on the pillow, a lovingly prepared meat loaf dinner) that have no effect whatsoever on her sister’s overwhelming despair. Claire fears that the approach of Melancholia will further disturb her sister, but as the planet draws nearer, Justine becomes ever more calm and lucid, if still a little scary. There is an obvious affinity between her own melancholia and that aptly named sphere in the sky. She even sneaks out late one night to lie luxuriously naked while bathed in its blue-white light.
For Justine, whose depressive state renders her incapable of finding contentment or meaning in the things that fulfill most people (e.g. work, marriage), the end of the world holds no terror, only the promise of relief and respite. (As she tells her sister in the quote which opens this post, she sees no reason to grieve for the passing away of everything they know.) For Claire, who is clearly attached to all the domestic minutiae of her existence, facing oblivion is unbearable. Once it becomes clear that they and everyone else on Earth are doomed, the sisters have a memorable exchange that crystallizes their opposing natures and sheds light on the entire troubled history of their relationship. Claire is desperate to mark the end in some appropriately momentous way. “Help me, Justine,” she pleads in anguish. “I need to make it nice.”
Justine: You want to sit on the terrace and sip wine, the three of us?
Claire: It would make me happy.
Justine: Do you know what I think of your plan?
Claire: No. I was hoping you might like it.
Justine: I think it’s a piece of shit.
Claire: Please, Justine, I want it to be nice.
Justine: Nice? Well then, why don’t we meet on the fucking toilet?
Claire: Fine, then let’s not…
Justine: You’re damn right let’s not!
Claire: I really hate you sometimes.
I mentioned earlier that there are four ‘characters’ at the center of Melancholia. The fourth one? It’s the rambling estate on which the entire film takes place – a sprawling mansion with spacious, sparsely furnished rooms set on an 18-hole golf course (“Augusta National transported to Versailles” as critic Stephanie Zacharek memorably described it.) The estate sits atop a hill, at the end of a road so winding and unwieldy that Justine’s wedding limo nearly doesn’t make it to the reception. Remote and imposing, it’s the perfect place in which to sequester oneself from the rest of humanity and harbor illusions about one’s own invulnerability. At the same moment, it’s a perfect, unobstructed vista from which Claire and Justine can watch the apocalypse hurtling towards them with terrifying clarity. In a way, it embodies both of the sisters who inhabit it on its last day.
When the end does come, however, Melancholia evolves into something emotionally resonant and heartbreaking. To reassure her young nephew, Leo, Justine assures him there is a ‘magic cave’ where he can hide safely from the destruction to come. Together they build a sort of teepee out of tree branches and when the moment is upon them, she leads her nephew and sister into the teepee and grasps their hands as Melancholia rises on the horizon and a tempest begins to blow. Leo remains angelically calm. Claire shakes and sobs. But, contrary to what we would have expected, Justine is neither steely nor calm. Rather, she gazes tearfully at her sister in genuine love and concern. One can strongly sense that if she misses nothing else on Earth, she will miss Claire.
You can read those final seconds of Melancholia in a few different ways, I suppose. But for me they amount to Von Trier’s most shocking revelation yet: in the final seconds of life on Earth, human connection is what matters most. Or to put it more succinctly, it all comes down to love. That’s the last thing I would have expected from Lars Von Trier, but it’s his most potent and memorable takeaway yet.