Caution: this post is a bit of a plot spoiler for people who haven’t seen the film. However, knowing the plot was no hindrance to my second viewing of the film, at all. I was even more impressed and awed, the next time around.
How does the world end? To quote Robert Frost via Bella Swan:
Some say the world will end in fire,
some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if you had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
to know that for destruction ice
is also great
And would suffice.
If you’re Lars Von Trier, the world ends in total destruction, as it both implodes and explodes, in the opening sequence of his new film, Melancholia. The earth’s atmosphere is ripped away by the gravitational pull of a wandering, giant blue planet, named Melancholia, which literally consumes the earth, as it draws our planet in to the point of implosion/explosion, and burns it up. POINT, FIRE.
The film begins with this gorgeous, slow motion, cinematic ballet of cosmic death, choreographed to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. As viewed from outer space, this cosmic dance of death is almost sensual, and certainly as lyrical as anything in Kubrick’s “2001.” It’s both a prelude to the main body of the film, and a documentation of the end. Before the first character comes on screen, we have already seen their eventual fate.
That first introduction of characters is similarly done in an expressionistic, slow motion scene that visually weaves the fate of the main character to the planet’s own inevtiable attraction to a gravitational field bigger than its own.
This is the first time we see Justine ( Kirsten Dunst.) She seems to both strain against and also be pulled toward an invisble force, just like the earth is, in the heavens above. The first part of the movie is the story of Justine’s wedding. Her mental illness, more than just normal depression is on display early, and in fact the wedding night ends with the marriage and Justine’s career in tatters.
This beautiful image, left, is part of an early montage that reflects a sense of the morbid fairy tale that is about to unfold. The film’s visual style is ” a clash between what is romantic and grand and stylized, and then some form of reality,” according to Von Trier. Yet the melding of styles of Kubrick’s sensual, fluid, visual imagery and Bergman’s intense, elegiac, naturalistic acting (enhanced by a lot of hand held camera shots) blend quite effectively throughout the film.
The mood and composition of the shot above is certainly a reference to the well known Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece by John Millais, called, Ophelia, below. It was painted in 1852, and is an illustration of the death of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It captures the tragic-romantic-depressive mood that permeates the movie. In fact, the idea for the film was generated by a therapist’s suggestion to Von Trier, (who famously suffers from depression and anxiety disorders,) that depressed people often remain calm in highly stressful situations. It doesn’t get more stressful than the literal end of the world.
The first section of the film is entitled “Justine,” after the Kirsten Dunst character, and chronicles her wedding at the opulent, castle home of her sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and her wealthy husband, John, played by Keiffer Sutherland.
Above, the couple arriving two hours late for their wedding party, and, above, right, pausing to stare at a strange celestial object, with Claire and John, the evening’s hosts. While everyone else seems transfixed, Claire stares away, tensely and with, as it turns out, appropriately ominous, premonition. John, an amateur astronomer, explains that the object is the star Antares, hidden by the sun, and harmless.
The wedding party’s moments of joy are laced through with increasing tensions. Justine’s divorced parents, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are bickering, while her boss, Stellan Skarsgard, who is also the best man, and Justine, are at odds. Below, left, the groom (Alexander Skarsgard) and his best man, clearly indicate something is amiss. Below, right, Claire and John are tense and agitated, as Justine’s behavior starts to become seriously erratic.
Left, we see a last moment of happiness between the bride and groom. She demures from undressing and says she needs some time, and starts to wander around outside. Over the remainder of the evening she becomes more depressed,
unnerved, and acts out, at the end, disastrously.
Outside, Justine, Claire, and Clare’s son, Leo, become enthralled by the mysterious intruder in the sky.
Justine , however, starts to become completely unhinged, causing scene after scene. She ends up telling off her boss, quitting her job, and sleeping with a virtual stranger, all outdoors, under the watch of the mysterious celestial visitor, that seems to infect her soul. Below, she surrenders to the night.
By the end of the evening, everything has come undone. Justine’s husband walks out on her, devastated, humiliated, and disgusted. Her parents are at each other’s throats. Her brother-in-law, is furious at wasting so much money on such a lavish event, which he has done to placate his wife, who is now angry at both him and her sister. Everyone feels betrayed by Justine, whose breakdown has helped reveal the cracks in everyone else’s personalities and relationships.
Part two of the film is called “Claire.” Justine has now become so depressed that she can not even walk to the bath under her own power, or perform the simplest activities.
She comes to the castle to live with Claire, John, and Leo. Gradually with Claire’s nursing she becomes better. The focus now shifts to what was thought previously to be the star, Antares, and is now revealed as a huge planet on a rogue orbit through the galaxy, called Melancholia, because of it’s blue color. As it becomes clearly visible on its own, everyone flock’s to John’s telescope.
The mainstream scientific analysis is that the orbit will take the gigantic planet to a close and spectacular, fly by of the earth.
As Justine has improved, Claire has become increasingly agitated and fearful that the world is coming to an end. She has started obsessively doing internet research and finds data that shows Melancholia is on a collision course with the earth, and that John’s analysis is wrong. At first, the collision theory is portrayed as a kook conspiracy notion, but eventually, is proven to be true. The characters reactions to this reality and their varying levels of acceptance of it, takes up the last third of the film. John pretends it’s not true. Claire’s agitation and fear keep mounting for herself and her child, while Justine becomes almost calmly philosophical and accepting, even as the climate changes and strange precipitation falls from the sky
John can not handle the truth, and absents himself from the situation. Both Claire and Leo are now totally dependent on Justine for emotional support. The wheel has turned completely. Justine gets the two of them to help her build a “magic” tepee where they will be safe.
The acting in Melancholia, with it’s great cast, is superb. As is his usual style, Von Trier does not rehearse the actors and uses a lot of improvisation. He initially operates the camera himself, hand held, on the first take. On subsequent takes, the cinematographer operates the camera, mirroring Von Trier’s movements.
The film is a rich feast visually. Kirstin Dunst won the award at Cannes for best actress, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is every bit as good. Although the subject matter of Melancholia is certainly unusual, the film itself is probably the most traditional Lars Von Trier has ever done. He has said that, ” a film should be like a stone in your shoe.” I, however, did not feel the slightest rub in my shoes. The film’s stylistic accessibility gives it a universality, and promotes a sympathetic identification with the characters, that is not always the case in Von Trier’s oeuvre. Melancholia has a deeper continuing resonance, for me, than any of his other films. It totally absorbs you and compels rumination about the deepest questions in life. Parts of the film that Von Trier considered a parody of superficial, upper middle-class life, actually, (as in the way Ingmar Bergman often used the same milieu,) open up many touchstones with everyone’s emotional experiences. Families are families in the end, and how they deal with the messy stuff of life, offers much that compels and preoccupies us all.
Melancholia is a film that washes over you and through you and leaves you deeply moved and thrilled. The experience of it is more like viewing and inhabiting a piece of art, than merely watching a movie.