For a guy who says some pretty stupid things sometimes, Lars von Trier is a pretty great artist. I have loved just about all of his films, going back to the Dogme days and up through his previous work, Antichrist. Melancholia does not disappoint — it too is a spectacular film. But I hope we don’t have another Ezra Pound-like figure on our hands, and that von Trier will give up his fascination with Nazism, no matter how “amazing” their aesthetics may or may not have been. It would be nice to be able to fully embrace such a great artist (and there are many one can), instead of (often) having to constantly make that life/work distinction, you know?
But back to the film. Briefly, Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, one of two sisters, the other being Claire (Charlotte Gainsoburg). In the first half of the film, Justine has just gotten married but can’t seem to fully go along with this state of affairs. The reception, at a lavish country manor house, is a disaster due to family issues and especially due to Justine’s own severe depression, and, even though she and her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) have apparently already tied the knot, he leaves her in the wee hours because she just won’t get it together. “I tried,” she later tells her sister, who is bitterly disappointed in her.
Clearly, none of this is real. I would say that the whole thing is deliberately contrived in order to explore the emotional interactions between people in fraught circumstances. Part two of the film concerns the impending doom of planet Earth, which is about to be swallowed up by a formerly hidden planet called Melancholia — the allegorical aspects here are obvious. Justine, severely depressed to the point of barely being functional, has arrived at the same manor home of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). As Melancholia approaches, Justine’s frame of mind seems to lighten somewhat, while Claire becomes desperate with the anxiety of impending doom.
Such is the plot. I don’t think we are supposed to care very much for any of the characters. If this were meant to be a realistic film, we would probably be exasperated at everyone: Justine (at the very least why not try Prozac or something?), her newlywed husband (he leaves her because she’s having a hard time, and on their wedding night no less?), Claire (yes, the world is about to be swallowed up by a rogue planet, but what can you do?), and John (who commits suicide instead of remaining with his family as the end approaches). However, identification with his characters is not what von Trier is after either.
What von Trier seeks to accomplish, instead, is to instill emotion and wonder in the viewer through the poetic deployment and juxtaposition of his images. And while there is a kind of realism in his Dogme-style use of handheld camerawork throughout, much of Melancholia is composed of surreal imagery that at times is reminiscent of David Lynch or the photography of Gregory Crewdson. Indeed, the opening sequence is a series of still or almost still scenes, and it is one of the most beautiful parts of the film (director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro deserves mention here). Von Trier has called it an “overture,” and it anticipates the motifs of the rest of the film in a brilliant manner. These are a series of moving paintings almost, which, taken on their own, initially seem strange or bizarre, but whose meanings are revealed in the context of the unfolding work.
There are too many dazzling scenes in Melancholia to mention, certainly not only in the opening “overture.” I will note just a few, though, which particularly stand out for me. One is the recurring scene of the manicured lawn/garden of the house with its two rows of trees, one row of which appears to lean in at an awkward angle while the other grows straight. The lawn looks out onto the sea, and when the planet rises there on the horizon, it is quite spectacular. Another is the aerial view of the sisters riding horses together through the grounds of the manor, through mist, through trees. These aerial shots reminded me a bit of certain similar shots in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Finally, as the planet approaches, Justine has disappeared one night and Claire goes off to find her. She comes upon her in the woods, basking naked in the light of the planet, as a witch might do under the full moon — it is as if Justine is reveling in the world’s impending destruction, as if her fatalism somehow redeems and allows her to conversely embrace life, even if only for these brief moments before it ends.
Thankfully, von Trier is smart enough not to give us a twist ending. If everyone had somehow survived, or if the credits came up before the collision, it would have been a huge letdown. However, the earth does indeed end, and we see it, and it is a great filmic moment.