Melancholia – Lars Von Trier (2011)

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The original, unedited draft at 1,243 words:
Von Trier’s Melancholia is new and the same, but brilliant either way
By: Rob Boylan
Stars: 5

T. S. Eliot wrote that the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. In Melancholia, Danish director Lars Von Trier’s latest ode to the triumph of the human spirit, it ends with both. In it, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sisters facing the end of the world, as an onrushing rogue planet threatens to pass through Earth’s orbit and the Earth itself.

Dunst, in a breakthrough performance, plays the pretty younger sister, Justine, a newlywed with a building tide of emotional problems threatening to capsize her life, and, in the immediate, her wedding reception. She’s been like this before, but is warned “not tonight”, and throughout the reception people try to buy her off, buy her happiness: her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), gives her an apple orchard where she can go sit to feel happy when she is sad; her brother in law, John (Keifer Sutherland), with the stupidly lavish party that would cost a normal person an arm and a leg (something that he constantly reminds us of). John goes so far to ask her for a deal: he will consider it money well spent if she agrees to be happy. Happiness doesn’t work like that, though. When an attempt is made to buy happiness and it fails, it makes the sadness grow even deeper and distort itself. In Melancholia this sadness happens to manifest itself in the specter of a planet on a collision course with the Earth. It seems to be no coincidence in timing that the planet Melancholia blots out Antares on this night, and surges towards the Earth, growing bigger as Justine falls deeper into her widening depression.

In the second half of the film, the focus turns to Claire (Gainsbourg), the sensible older sister who tries to keep all of their lives together. She is fighting a losing battle. Eventually, even Claire has a moment of weakness when she tries and fails to buy Justine’s happiness with a sentimental favorite dinner, meatloaf, which only makes Justine cry when it tastes like ash.

If you could say that the first half is about Justine’s building dam of depression, you would have to say that the second half is about Claire coming undone by fear. By now, Melancholia is just days away Earth, and even though John insists it will miss, Claire has fallen victim to the doomsayers. It’s just as vicious an uncontrolled spiral as Justine’s depression, though it’s based in a logical reasoning, not a chemical one. To quickly break the difference down, you could say that fear is something that is easily manipulated, while depression is a reinforced brick wall. The logic of seeing a planet come so close to Earth that it steals part of our atmosphere and makes it snow during the summer can naturally cause one to become very illogical.

Melancholia is both a touchdown on new ground and a revisit to old familiar ground for Von Trier. He has never done anything quite so beautiful and visionary, which is something he had doubts about along the way, but some of the more down to earth elements are familiar from his past. Breaking the Waves, too, begins at the wedding of an unstable girl and follows her through her emotional descent. Bess (Emily Watson), a member of an ascetic protestant church in the Scottish highlands, manifests her problems with attachments: to Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), her new husband, to Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), he sister in law, but most especially to God, who she talks to and gets damning replies from. This God is in her head, speaks through her mouth, but to her is as real as the air she breathes.

But where Justine is on her own, circling the drain in her own head, Bess is egged on in her downward spiral by Jan and by her own immense guilt. There is no hint in Melancholia that Justine has ever felt any kind of guilt. She is not crazy or delusional, she’s systemically imbalanced. Still, she says she knows things about life, things she shouldn’t know. Trivial things, like the answer to the bean count contest at her wedding, but also that life on Earth is all there is in the universe, and it won’t be missed. Life, she knows, is evil, and deserving of its fate. Does she know, or is she just insisting? Dunst brilliantly straddles the edge of crazy and childlike in this scene to the point where it’s difficult to get a read of her character. Her demeanor is calm to the point of unnerving, but when she is challenged by Claire over what she knows, she recedes into the guise of a hurt two year old whose mommy won’t believe her wild story. Claire is right to not believe her story, if only for her own sanity, so she doesn’t go to pieces in front of her child.

It’s actually been gnawing at me that the prologue — which features key scenes from the film in a 10 minutes slow motion ballet set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde — is not really a prologue, but a representation of an idea coming into an increasingly despairing Justine’s head. I don’t mean that to sound as simple as a The Cabinet of Caligari, and it’s not a mindfuck movie, but there is a fair case to be made for it. Depression ultimately leads to self-absorption, self-loathing and the loathing of all those around you. Destroying the planet is as natural a thought as any in that state. Justine seems to allude to it most clearly when she says, somewhat matter-of-factly, that “this has nothing to do with the village” as Claire, in her most illogical moment, tries to flee to the nearby village, to run away from Melancholia as it is about to strike.

Claire cannot make out of the family’s grounds, just like her character seemed to be stuck in the idyllic Edenin Antichrist. Being stuck in time and space is fairly common to Von Trier films, in fact. In Europa, Kessler (Jean Marc Barr), cannot escape the odd post-war Germany that he finds himself in. In Dogville, Grace (Nicole Kidman), manages to briefly escape, only to be raped and promptly brought back to the town she is a captive of. Even in Breaking the Waves, Bess is rooted so deeply to her town that, despite excommunicated by her church, she can’t manage get very far away either.

In contrast to Antichrist or Europa, though, the power that controls the world of Melancholia seems to always belong to Justine. She seems to be willing all of this to happen, even though she does seem afraid of it at points too. As the film opens, she literally wields the power, spraying stray electricity from her fingers as the world collapses around her, like the God of her dollhouse world. If a planetary collision doesn’t concern the nearby village, just who does it concern anyway?

The bottom line is that Melancholia isn’t a one and done film. It’s a film that can easily be dismissed on face value, waived off with the intellectually lazy “first world problems” wand, but actually contains complex, rich core deep down. It’s an overwhelming film as a first viewing, though, and Von Trier doesn’t make anything about it easy. Nor should he.