Miguel Penabella | 11 June 2012
Dir. Lars von Trier, 2011
Within the first few minutes of Lars von Trier’s brilliantly executed opening sequence for Melancholia, it becomes clear that the director is aiming for something monumental. Employing the very same slow motion effects from Antichrist, Lars von Trier immediately places humanity’s insignificance with celestial power front and center. The director accompanies his visuals for his end of the world with Richard Wagner’s booming “Tristan und Isolde prelude,” casting a ghostly yet forceful rendition of cosmic imbalance. The film’s titular planetary body Melancholia dances with the Earth, slowly gravitating towards it as von Trier introduces a number of visual motifs that will reoccur throughout the film. Fire consumes Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters In the Snow; Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) runs through a surreal garden and golf course reminiscent of the one from Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) floats in water clad in her wedding dress like a tragic Shakespearian Ophelia; electrical currents begin emanating from out of nowhere. In Melancholia, Lars von Trier not only opens his directorial style to broader territory; he’s doing so without abandoning the strengths and stylistic flourishes that places him as one of the finest European arthouse filmmakers, a role he has enjoyed even back in his up-and-coming Dogme 95 roots.
Split into a diptych like a painting, Melancholia focuses on two sisters, Justine and Claire, while Melancholia’s collision with Earth serves as a backdrop for an emotionally wrought, twofold character study. Harboring an apparent obsession with pairs, Lars von Trier presents a story arc that occurs on two separate occasions – Justine’s wedding party and the sobering aftermath that concludes with total apocalypse. As Melancholia slingshots and dances a planetary waltz around Earth, so too does Justine and Claire revolve around one another throughout the events before, during, and after the wedding party. The film’s preoccupation with a pair of female leads has ties to Ingmar Bergman’s abstract 1966 film Persona, written while the director suffered pneumonia. Lars von Trier also writes while under a wounded state, having scripted Melancholia based on his experiences under depression and manic hysteria. Burying a narrative that probes the emotions of depression under the framework of arthouse sci-fi, von Trier mines personal conflict to fully register the emotive impact of his twin female performances. The director has always been known for arduous roles from his women (Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Björk in Dancer In the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, etc.) because many of his films document the suffering of the female condition. Melancholia, like the Freudian implications of the word, deals heavily with depression, specifically a uniquely female variety of stressed emotions registered in close-ups of individual human faces that loom as large as the titular planet in their own right.
All throughout the wedding party of the first half, Justine exhibits painful dejection and loses interest in her own party in favor of forlorn self-pitying to the bafflement of her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). A sense of gloominess overshadows the entire wedding party, casting the lavishness and merriment in a darker light given the context of both the forewarning apocalyptic preface and Justine’s slowly unraveling depression. Lars von Trier playfully controls the melodrama of matrimony, cloaking it with smoldering wrath between the sisters, sexual encounters, and dysfunctional clamor by both a loopy John Hurt and a bitter Charlotte Rampling as the sisters’ parents. There are moments throughout this emotionally overwrought chapter that recalls fellow Danish contemporary Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (sharing that same setup of an emotionally turbulent party) or even what Douglas Sirk might produce if he were interested in making a melodrama for the arthouse circuit. The aforementioned Last Year at Marienbad clearly has fragments of its warping metaphysical nature here, with Melancholia’s vague setting of an imaginary America (the director has yet to visit the country) relegating the events that unfold as illusory, even completely unreal. But never mind the locale; the greatest strengths of the film are found in the acting performances. A number of robust supporting roles anchor the melodrama with intrigue, from the aforementioned secondary stars populating the wedding party to a skillful Kiefer Sutherland tackling a weighty role following his work in 24 as Claire’s snobbish husband.
Nevertheless, the two sisters at the heart of Melancholia represent the true brilliance of the film, always hovering around one another but never quite coming into mutual, cathartic contact like the solid blocks of color on a Mark Rothko painting. Charlotte Gainsbourg returns to work with von Trier after her tremendously violent stint in Antichrist, channeling a more neutral energy here as the riled sister Claire looking out for the impulsive Justine. Taut yet jagged, Gainsbourg’s stony veneer quickly pushes to the breaking point under Justine’s oppressive gloominess that quickly affects her close sibling, mirroring Melancholia’s own gravitational pull towards Earth. Indeed, the big 2011 Cannes winner Kristen Dunst operates as the haunting existentialist loner, all hollow close-ups, distant smiles, and widescreen paralysis. Slowly estranging herself from the world – her husband, her parents, her boss, her sister – she conveys an intimate depression through her forced smiles and frequent desertions from her own party. Her grim anguish gradually diffuses to the rest of the wedding party, with the eyes of the partygoers falling upon her to envelop her entire being. Justine desperately tries to appear cooperative and satisfied, only to further frustrate Michael and Claire who immediately see right through her. It’s clear that the marriage is already doomed to fail, not only because of the impending apocalypse but also because of the depressive aura that looms as large as Melancholia in the distance. The emotions of Dunst are immediate in this segment of the film, but she herself feels so infinitely distant.
Like the quickly approaching planet, the second half of the film witnesses the turning point for Justine during the days following the wedding party. The extravagant anguish transforms into eerie calm and resignation as Melancholia becomes an increasingly sizeable blot in the sky. Justine’s inhuman hollowness serves as the antithesis for Claire’s sudden hysteria amidst the death and obliteration slowly unraveling, but even as inescapable disaster inches closer and closer to Earth, Lars von Trier frames with beautiful visuals that seem to contradict the oncoming destruction. Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography in the second half of the film recalls the beautiful yet ashen tones of Andrei Tarkovsky films like Stalker or The Mirror, with predominant colors that include dark greens, vacant greys, and cold blues. This appreciation for the great Russian filmmaker and the movie’s own deeply embedded fascination with art history makes for a visually striking film. The first passing of Melancholia in the night sky lights up the screen in a ghostly blue sunrise, a visual treat for the eyes begging to be seen in IMAX. Melancholia has its moments that bask in the artistic ideal of the sublime with characters that revel before grandiose displays like Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Thus, the film shares the same qualities as another cosmically grand film from 2011, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, featuring characters in total wonder before the awe-inspiring power of nature. Even stranger still, Lars von Trier completely diverges from its contemporary in other respects, containing a more treacherous misanthropy deep within the beautiful images.
There’s no surprise that Melancholia never finds a sense of redemption in its characters, only a defeated resignation amidst death and destruction. The opening preamble confirms this revelation within the first minutes of the film, but even more surprising is the uncompromising beauty that von Trier presents for the events that lead to Armageddon. Without a doubt, the film’s finest moment occurs during the final few minutes, a mirrored reflection of the opening with Wagner once again booming an orgasmic crescendo as Melancholia collides into Earth. Lars von Trier has always been associated with a cinema of cruelty, basking in the extreme fringes of sex and violence to reveal something ugly, but in Melancholia, the monumental last frames discover something so irrevocably beautiful and sincere amidst the ruin. The extreme slow motion and the crisp lenses of digital filmmaking garner more goosebumps with every passing second, returning once again to what the film has set out to accomplish. Lars von Trier may enjoy the suffering of his characters and the prospect of destroying the Earth on the big screen, but there’s a trace of loveliness behind it all – it’s not so difficult to find.