Lars von Trier, one of cinema’s most risk-taking provocateurs, follows up his controversial and divisive Cannes-crasher Antichrist with Melancholia, a near-masterpiece about human unhappiness. In the context of von Trier’s own recent bouts with depression, apparently spawning Antichrist, the film could function as a rumination on this disorder. However, the apocalyptic film suggests more nuanced and complex readings than that, offering a cynical condemnation of humanity that is uniquely von Trier’s. Perhaps most surprising here is the restraint in his approach, showing nothing superficially offensive beyond some female nipplage, opting for a simple drama that unfolds operatically; the talking points in Melancholia are the ideas.
Anyone familiar enough with the film to have sought out a review probably knows by now that the world does in fact end in the film via a massive planet crashing into the Earth. This is shown in the first five minutes. Going back about a week, the film then proceeds to track the last few days of sisters Juliette (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). While there are other characters in the picture, Melancholia is intimately focused on these two. No urban destruction or worldwide panic visible, we are isolated for the entire duration in the lot of a mansion straight out of Last Year at Marienbad.
The sisters at first seem to be sketched as dichotomous symbols that contrast rather starkly against each other. Juliette has just been married to Michael (Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd), yet it quickly becomes evident that she is unstable, depressed or perhaps bi-polar. She is very rarely pleased with life; in fact, there are precisely two instances where she appears genuinely happy in the film, both occurring when the rituals and precision of her ceremony’s etiquette falter. Despite having been the bride in one of the most romantically gorgeous weddings this side of a Vera Wang catalog, something is missing (or, more likely, too much is superfluous), and it triggers an allergic reaction that plummets her into near sedation that grows gradually more intense (it gets to a point where she cannot even accept the favor of her sister making her meatloaf; it only tastes like ash).
Claire, on the other hand, relishes in the security of ritual, family, and excess ornamentation. While she seems to live the more stable life – she has a husband, son, gigantic house – it also means that she has more to lose. Planet Melancholia reduces her to an anxious, wrecked, listless state. She has, and does, the things that people have, and do, when they are happy, and the prospect of death paralyzes her. This doesn’t so much contrast Juliette’s condition as much as it just presents the early, blunt stages of the same disorder. For Juliette, the planet is not interfering with anything valuable; on the contrary, it is ridding the universe of the last iotas of evil. Claire is so terrified because she is beginning to see this for the first time; she acknowledges her mortality, while still trying to reject it (her tacky idea for her last few minutes alive involves a glass of wine, a song, and some candles on the patio).
Even the filmmaking style reflects these ideas. The opening depiction of the apocalypse is stunningly beautiful, with rich, dramatic ambers and cobalt blues, filmed in extreme slow motion. The end of the world is a gorgeous, moving painting; lovely, in the grossest sense of the word. We’re only removed from this sumptuous imagery from the blunt, muddy title card that has become von Trier’s trademark. From this point, we are thrust into a shaky, handheld, Dogme 95-esque filming style that cuts the crap.
Evil, for von Trier, is not obviously malicious or dark-sided, but rather the veneer of precious moments and gestures that prevents humans from doing and feeling what they actually want. The planet and it’s heavy-handed nomenclature dispel a nasty, yet authentic, worldview suggesting that all of these things that make us happy are so irrelevant that it’s a wonder that we aren’t running and screaming, dreading death, from the moment we first learn to walk and speak. It’s an extreme notion, but do we expect less from him?
2011 Cannes Int. Film Festival – Main Competition Selection
Reviewed on the 18th of May, 2011.