Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier (screenplay)
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skarsgard
When Lars von Trier announced “No more happy endings,” after the premiere of his last film, Antichrist, people were a little dismayed. Had any of his movies actually had a happy ending in the traditional sense? Bjork dangling from a rope at the end of Dancer in the Dark, an entire village (and America by extension) facing a woman scorned at the end of Dogville, a man walking through the woods and then being overcome by persecuted female ghosts (or something like that) in Antichrist- he’s not exactly Disney material.
His latest, Melancholia, certainly contains a grim conclusion whether or not you subscribe to the “more” part of his proclamation. This is a film in which the world ends and everyone on it perishes, but not before a young woman succumbs to crippling depression during her wedding.
Melancholia opens with a gorgeous, slow-motion montage sequence set to the classical music of Wagner that shows a planet (which we will later learn is the source of the film’s title) collide with Earth. Von Trier, like Terrence Malick’s approach with Tree of Life, collides the galactic with the personal, as we see Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) experience different levels of this ending.
Inter-cut with the planets’ merging atmospheres are slow-motion sequences of Justine in her wedding dress. She is running through the forest in one shot, and in another floating down a river. This overture, unlike the one in Antichrist, lays out his battle strategy for the rest of narrative.
Because this is a von Trier film, before the Earth can end Justine must lose all hope and reason for being alive. Scenes of intimate happiness between her and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) mark the official beginning of the film’s first part, which is named after Justine.
Almost the entire first half of the movie is devoted to the wedding’s after-party. It’s here that we start to see the cracks in Justine’s foundation, as she slowly implodes while the evening drags on. A grandiose melodramatic outburst from her mother (Charlotte Rampling) and the womanizing of her father (John Hurt) seem to be the trigger of her despair that evening, though it’s made clear that she’s been suffering quite a while.
Von Trier’s gift as a director has always been in emotional connection. His films are edited in such a way that you feel every ounce of pain with the characters. Dunst is brilliant as Justine. From the quietly devastating moment where she has to hold back tears while she cuts her wedding cake to the more flamboyant outbursts in the second half (named after Claire), she gives a performance that has become a mandatory gold standard for this director’s female roles.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is allowed to show off more of her emotional side in the film’s second half, when her paranoia about the planet that has emerged from behind the sun is reaching its peak. Her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) is a scientist, and assures her that Melancholia will not collide with Earth, but she relentlessly hounds the internet for apocalyptic data that justifies her feelings.
Von Trier has finally come to terms with the absurdity of many of his storylines, and found a suitable genre in science fiction. Though this does mark the first time he’s used special effects, Melancholia is not a showy movie once it moves past the stylized overture. His abrupt cuts and quick edits that break continuity in his shots remain intentionally in tact, a remnant of his Dogme 95 days. More and more, though, he is embracing arthouse sensibility, at least visually.
Many of those who see Melancholia will be tempted to find allegory in its story to the real world. Though it does have things to say about denial, anger, and acceptance, to try and put it into a modern context with current issues (climate change seems the most likely) would be to miss the point.
This is a movie about more than the destruction of the planet. Justine’s life is torn apart in the first half. Normally for von Trier, that suffering would be enough and she would be allowed to die, but now she walks around like a husk. Her sister Claire cooks her meatloaf, and she says it tastes like ash, which is all that will be left in the coming days.
That volatile sibling relationship adds another layer to Melancholia. It’s about those two sisters, who until the apocalypse seamed forever destined to drift apart and back together, learning to accept fate and experience the end side-by-side. They are brought together much like the planets, if less violently. Their conversations about the world ending provide for some of the movie’s more poignant moments.
Like Malick did with Tree of Life, von Trier projects himself into his protagonist and then puts it in a scope outside of the known. It’s odd how two films made without collaboration can be so close-knit. In some ways Melancholia is a dark twin to Malick’s film, contemplating destruction over creation and being perfectly ok with all those things that are to die.