Following on the heels of my introduction to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the summer of 2015, I set my sights on one of cinema’s true rascals: Lars von Trier. A rarity among “foreign” directors in that almost all of his significant films are in English, von Trier uses this apparent accessibility in service to various provocations. Melancholia was the first of his movies to catch my eye at the time of its initial release. Seeing a still of Kirsten Dunst with little lightning bolts emanating from her fingertips really stoked my imagination. Back in 2011, Melancholia was held up as a sort of rival to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Both films juxtaposed personal stories with global spectacle, to the tune of classical music. Melancholia was viewed as a refuge for those who were put off by Malick’s sweetness — sardonic and brusque where The Tree of Life was elegiac and sincere. My feelings about The Tree of Life are well-established, so it might not be a surprise that I hesitated to catch up with its opposite. Still, the thought of loving an alternative vision (almost) as much as I loved Malick’s masterpiece was an exciting one. After catching up with four of von Trier’s earlier films, and mostly loving them, I sat down to Melancholia. My response was muted. After the astonishing standalone opening sequence (which ended up on a list I put together a couple years ago), the movie gradually wore out its welcome with me. Individual moments and performances impressed me, but I responded tepidly to its overall mood and structure. However, since it’s another one of the most acclaimed films of the current decade, I decided I owed it another shot.
Setting aside, for the moment, the rogue planet of the title, Melancholia is a story about two sisters coming to the end of their relationship, or perhaps its beginning. Hence the bifurcated structure: “Part One: Justine” (Kirsten Dunst) and “Part Two: Claire” (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first part is an extended sequence, the wedding reception for Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Struggling to reach the location (their stretch limousine can’t navigate the winding road), Justine and Michael finally arrive two hours late, and tempers on all sides start fraying. All the familiar ceremonial events take place — the speeches, the dancing, the cutting of the cake, the tossing of the bouquet — but they get progressively more dire as the interminable night drags on. At the center of it all, of course, is the bride, who has, without any clear explanation, lost all enthusiasm for the celebration. Her sister Claire struggles to understand and tries to salvage as much good cheer as possible.
By the next morning, most of the cast has left the film for good. (Even the groom leaves; that’s how bad things get.) The film is pared down to Justine, Claire, Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). The approach of Melancholia is by this point an unavoidable subject, and the three adults respond to it in three different ways. John is convinced that it will approach Earth but pass by harmlessly. He contemplates it with the kind of excitement that any amateur astronomer might have for, say, a comet or solar eclipse. Claire, on the other hand, is terrified that the internet doomsayers are correct and that Earth will be pulverized. Justine’s position is revealed gradually. At first, her helplessness and despondency could be attributed merely to the fate of her wedding. But there are hints even in the film’s first part that she possesses a special awareness of celestial events. She notes the star Antares soon before Melancholia passes in front of it. As the film’s prologue suggests, the end of the world is indeed approaching, and Justine’s stricken state ultimately reveals itself to be an embrace of that truth. Earth no longer holds any attraction for her, so she welcomes the new blue light in the sky.
Claire still struggles to understand this and tries to salvage as much good cheer as possible. That’s the unifying thread of the two sections. In the first, the practical older sister is a more acerbic presence, trying to force things to go right. In the film’s second half, we see things from her perspective. Justine’s torpor gets so bad that we can’t help but see things that way. Claire wants to help her sister get better. She’d also like to be able to encourage her husband in his scientific pursuits. Both tasks, unfortunately, are impossible. As the end draws near, Claire succumbs to another thoroughly understandable impulse — not so much to get her son away from danger, as she must realize there’s nowhere to go, but simply to be around more people before humanity’s extinction. Her escape attempt fails, and Claire is forced into a face-to-face encounter with Justine’s position. The conclusion is a kind of sisterly bonding by way of self-immolation.
I like to think I’m as open to mordancy and darkness in storytelling as the next fellow. But there’s something about the way von Trier writes and directs it in Melancholia that feels slightly forced. Justine’s sudden heel turn away from happiness is ineffable enough on its own, but a couple distasteful wedding guests are thrown in just to stir the pot. First is Claire and Justine’s estranged mother (Charlotte Rampling), who seems determined to take a dump on the proceedings at the slightest provocation. Second is Justine’s employer (Stellan Skarsgard), who is grotesquely insistent that she get some work done on her wedding night. Both of these figures are enticing on paper, but I don’t buy them at all in practice. Generally speaking, von Trier’s reliance on exaggerated rudeness doesn’t work for me here. Dunst’s arctic stare is really all he needed. Her performance has been justly celebrated. The visual style — hand-held constriction set against some gorgeous manufactured images of space — is also fascinating. My struggle against Melancholia might mirror Claire’s. I, too, would very much like to get off the lifeless estate in which the entire film is set and find someone else with whom to share the world’s end. I suppose I have to respect von Trier’s integrity in denying me that. There can be no room to breathe in this story. I came close to lowering the rating on this film, but I think I’ve talked myself into keeping it the same. It’s possible I’ll be more in the mood for it one of these days.