The audacity of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia isn’t so much that it imagines the end of the world, but that it almost seems to be longing for it. As such it’s perhaps the von Trier movie that helps make sense of many of the others – his work is a stream of eccentrically dark visions and aggressively quirky distractions, often seeming held together more by what we know of the director (depressive, neurotic, obsessed with America despite never having been there) than what we glean from the films themselves. The category of what we (think we) know about von Trier expanded handily earlier this year, at the Cannes film festival. Melancholia was mostly well-received there, and its star Kirsten Dunst won the award for best actress. But this was all overshadowed by a press conference where von Trier went off on an extreme tangent, as follows: “What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. ... He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews.”
Humanity and generosity
The Cannes directors described these remarks as “unacceptable, intolerable and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival” and declared von Trier persona non grata. The director apologized, but later said “I can't be sorry for what I said—it's against my nature.” And then he sailed on toward his next controversy (due perhaps to erupt as soon as he releases his next project, reportedly an epic work of pornography). Contrary to the ideals of humanity? Well, in a way of course. But coming from the man whose last film depicted genital self-mutilation, you could as easily interpret it as exemplifying (in all its sloppiness) some kind of ideal, or at least a kind of necessity: how we compensate for whatever’s lacking within us by reaching out, playing games, putting ourselves on display.
Melancholia depicts this through Dunst’s character, Justine, newly-married (Alexander Skarsgard plays her husband) and two hours late to her own reception, an excessive affair held at a golf club owned by her brother in law John (Kiefer Sutherland). She only intermittently connects with the proceedings, at other times wandering off alone, or curling up asleep on her nephew’s bed; she’s affectionate toward her new husband, but lacks any real affinity with him. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is cold and cutting; her father (John Hurt) a genial buffoon who’s all but left reality behind. The event limps its way to a failed ending, squandering the attempts of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at holding it all together. And yet there’s a fragile beauty to its culmination, where the guests launch fragile, illuminated balloons into the air, floating upward like requests for redemption.
The Earth is evil
The film’s second part, set a day or two later, answers this request by sending the giant planet Melancholia, earlier glimpsed only as a distant star, into our own orbit, possibly fatally. Justine has become virtually catatonically depressed in the wake of the wedding, but as the threat approaches, she becomes eerily calm. “The Earth is evil,” she tells Claire, “we don’t need to grieve for it.” Claire’s rationalism, in contrast, leaves her vulnerable and increasingly ineffective, and her husband’s self-righteous, bottom-line-driven bluster ultimately gives way to astonishing cowardice. Discussing the appropriate mode of behaviour at the end of the world, Claire envisages a glass of wine on the terrace. Justine reacts to the idea with scorn, shooting back why not on the toilet?
The point is fairly clear of course: if the first part of the film didn’t convince us of the emptiness of our structures and devices and rituals (a critique which I suppose might extend to the utility of press conferences as well as of wedding receptions), the second suggests we’re so eroded by them, even the pending end of the world can’t galvanize us to reclaim our inner selves. Von Trier bakes his revulsion into the marrow of his film, shooting most events in a radically unsteady hand-held style: the Varsity, where I saw the movie, explicitly warned patrons of possible motion sickness, which my wife’s experience unfortunately confirms.
But Melancholia is also flamboyantly beautiful at times, opening with a series of intense, slow-motion tableaux (all drawing in various ways on later events), illustrating heightened states as if the world had been polished and prettified until its inner energy started to ooze out. And its attention to its actors goes far beyond mere dyspepsia. I already mentioned Dunst’s performance: I doubt whether anyone again will use her rather blank, crunched-up prettiness to such productive ends (von Trier is oddly successful at directing actresses; Charlotte Gainsbourg and – no joking – Bjork previously won the Cannes award in films of his). But I’m not sure Kiefer Sutherland has ever been better either!
Towards the end, Justine reveals – almost as an aside – that she has a heightened knowledge of things, some of them superficial (instinctively knowing how many beans are in a jar), others awe-inspiring (the absence of any other life in the universe). In the world as we know it, this seems mostly to contribute to her dysfunction; such capacity could only find peace at the end of time and searching. This might be a humane and generous (to coin a phrase) invention by von Trier, casting the self-lacerating darkness of depression as a cruel symptom of being stranded out of time and place…except that the right time and place only occurs at the end of everything.
Which is why I called Melancholia a kind of wish for the end of the world. The film doesn’t aim at realism of course: most obviously, the intruding planet turns up and parks itself on our doorstep, astronomically speaking, with barely an impact on our climate. Except for a few glimpses of Internet searches and throwaway references to what the “scientists” are saying, there’s no sense of the world beyond the house and grounds. The retreat is the most rarified of settings in which to lose oneself, lush and elegant and boundless, reminiscent of numerous other past epics of splendid high art isolation. And although you probably wouldn’t have gleaned this so far, the film’s at least half-way to being the blackest of comedies; there’s an air of Blake Edwards in how Justine systematically grinds down the illusions of her beaming new husband. Surely the whole idea of calling a movie Melancholia is meant to be at least a little funny?
I can’t recommend everyone see the movie (I’m sure many readers will have resolved from the above that it’s the last thing they’d ever see). And yet, I could imagine a person responding to it with tears of gratitude, feeling deeper affinity to it than to almost anything they’d ever seen before.