I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Danish auteur Lars von Trier for his entire career. His early films (like Elements of Crime) are thought provoking and stylish masterpieces. But he spent a decade trying to defend one of the most bizarre and useless film movements ever crafted. The Dogme 95 films are all wrecks, and feel as much of a studio construction as the very films that von Trier was trying to rebel against. Dancer in the Dark, despite its good soundtrack, is one of the least deserving Palm D’Or winners in history. He has abandoned that format (as the wonderfully disturbing Antichrist demonstrated) but it still seeps through his works with their slow build up and interest in hand held (re: amateur) cinematography.
So here’s Melancholia, von Trier’s exploration of madness and the end of the world. This is a film that will not appeal to the mass audience who are willing to sue studios because a film does not resemble The Fast and the Furious. The film, at many times, grinds to such a slow speed that I thought the projectionist had been replaced by someone from the local high school AV Club running a projector that was made during the Reagan administration. Many of the images are beautiful in and off themselves (even if you don’t like it, you’ll end up being captivated by the Bruegel like images), but films are meant to move. A good looking film can still be terrible if it has no momentum.
Luckily, Melancholia is also a masterpiece in the way that it examines humanity at its most vulnerable. The end of a relationship or a day that goes wrong can seem to people like the end of the world. Most Hollywood films are convinced that human emotion does not matter, and the spectacle of a planet blowing up is what counts. von Trier does attempt to show a world in chaos. Rather, he shows someone who has already experienced a figurative Armageddon experience the real thing. The idea was rebellious enough, but Von Trier manages to arrive at such an emotional truth that it makes Melancholia a film that must be seen.
The film is divided into two parts. The first part, Justine, explores the titular character (Kristen Dunst, who should be nominated for an Oscar) on her wedding night. Despite the extravogent party, paid for by her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) husband (Kiefer Sutherland) she is unhappy due to the pressure placed on her by her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and the constant negativity of her mother (Charlotte Rampling). As Justine looks to the night sky, it seems that a few stars are missing. The second part is titled “Claire” and concerns Justine’s sister as she cares for Justine (now in a full fledged mental breakdown) and becomes obsessed with Melancholia, a recently discovered planet in the Milky Way galaxy that is destined to destroy Earth (spoilers be damned…that’s the opening scene). Her husband attempts to ease her concerns, while Claire prepares for the worse.
I said in the preceding paragraph that Dunst deserves an Oscar, and I mean it. Most people who play mental illness do so with great flair and overacting. It is hard to see how they ever managed to function, which does not make them appear human. Dunst plays Justine as a woman who seems to know how to act like normal, but is burdened in doing so. So withdrawn is she from human contact that she has passionless sex on a golf course (with a man who is not her husband) just to feel something. For her, happiness is an abstract idea that cannot be achieved, even on what is supposed to be the happiest night of her life. It makes her illness (which is never explained) that much more tragic.
It also makes her well prepared for the apocalypse. That’s another great aspect of Melancholia – it is a deconstruction of every single disaster cliche, done in such a way that I doubt most people will realize what von Trier is doing. Most disaster films are obsessed with trying to find human characters we can “relate” to and watch as they pine over the fact that their lives are about to end. It’s like seeing the ultimate annihilation as filmed by Lifetime. von Trier spends Melancholia constantly asking, “who cares? The world is going to be destroyed through something that humans have absolutely no control over.” Even Claire seems to want to have some big emotional finish to the apocalypse, but Justine openly condemns her idea. Sutherland’s character, set up as the typical scientist who will be one of the people that saves the world, absolutely fails to fulfill his role. Even the suspense that studios try so badly to create is abandoned by von Trier – he opens the film with the planet’s destruction. von Trier’s strength as a director has always been how he is able to deconstruct famous genres that are obsessed with spectacle but insist they are about humanity. Even Dancer in the Dark managed to accomplish that task. Melancholia does it better.
That all applies to the second half of the film, but what seemingly unrelated first half? That is where the film finds its humanity. Justine is seemingly so uncaring about the end of the world because hers has already ended at a time that was supposed to be so incredible. I talked about how Dunst managed to convincingly play this, but von Trier wanted to use this moment to parallel what is happening with the world. The proximity between Earth and Melancholia is supposed to resemble some sort of cosmic marriage (Claire even says that the planet “looks friendly”). It may not have been necessary for von Trier to spell out the ending as his opening scene – based on the wedding, it was already apparent what would happen. von Trier finds his humanity by openly saying not every experience will end well. Still, that does not make them less important or bad. I know of many who keep complaining about watching films that are “depressing.” Why? Is your own life filled only with sunshine and gumdrops? Hopefully Melancholia will change some people’s minds.
There are some films that require thought and examination after they are finished. Melancholia is one of those films. During its run time, it seems as though von Trier is taxing the patience of all in attendance. Some will not be able to stand it (including the couple next to me that fell asleep) but Melancholia is so affecting that its images and ideas will linger in one’s mind long after the film is over. Here’s a high compliment for it – I want to see it again as soon as possible.
If none of this convinces you to seek it out, then here’s one final item: Dunst has two nude scenes. Have at it, gentlemen.