“Melancholia is going to pass right in front of us, and it’ll be the most beautiful sight ever”.
It's unlikely that another film this year will come close to providing images as darkly evocative as the series of tableaux that open Danish provocateur Lars von Trier's Melancholia. To the strains of Wagner's prelude to Tristan und Isolde, images shot at hundreds of frames a second almost imperceptibly show signs of life, like a momentous flickbook by Caravaggio. A woman clenches her eyes as birds fall from the sky behind her, whilst another clutches her child to her chest, leaving deep footprints as she collapses forwards through a seemingly waterlogged golf course. A horse, at breaking point, stumbles back, illuminated by a phosphorescent sky, as bolts of electricity course through the air, connecting von Trier's (anti)heroine inextricably to the impending apocalypse, an overture which ends with the planet Melancholia obliterating Earth. This is a story of worlds colliding, both literally and metaphorically, a seismic evisceration of social values and rituals, and a front row seat at the end of the world show, one conducted with caustic cynicism by von Trier, under whose hopeless gaze none of us stand, or deserve, a chance of survival.
“The Earth is evil. We don’t have to grieve for it”.
Eschewing the shock-tactic effrontery synonymous with much of his work, most notably his previous feature Antichrist (2009), von Trier opts for a vision of a world in decay, acidic erosions of interpersonal ties, internal combustions incandescent under the blue glow of creeping annihilation. Where Antichrist pushed its thematic examination of grief and depression to the forefront, externalising and literalising the howls of pain and hysteria of its protagonists, each feeding the other’s frenzied spiral downwards into a reign of Chaos, Melancholia is more akin to a funeral march, a steady procession towards resignation, neural pathways of emotion shutting down one circuit at a time.
Structured in two reflective halves named after sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), von Trier continues his career-long examination of fractured female psyches (albeit here in a manner less punishingly transgressive) by offering twinned perspectives on the impending cataclysm, that whilst narratively successive play like musical variations on a theme, a contrapuntal ostinato in a determinedly minor key. The first part takes in the wedding party of Justine and husband Michael (Alexander Skasgård), a chilly affair awash with vituperative snipes (most notably between her parents, played with lip-smacking relish by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), blistered egos (a scene-stealing Udo Kier) and desperate attempts at business dealings by Justine’s slimy boss (Stellan Skarsgård). Justine’s descent into an irreversible state of numb depression alienates and assassinates all around her, their needs and egos dive-bombing like kamikaze pilots, exploding upon impact with her impenetrable, impassive gaze. Von Trier has little time for exchanges of sentiment and fond farewells, for the symbolic rituals of love and compassion; the end is something we all face alone, whether in isolation by one’s own hand, or with others under the deafening silence of everything left unsaid.
“What do you want? To sit together listening to Beethoven’s 9th? Maybe we could have a glass of wine? Maybe we could light some candles? ...You know what I think of your plan? I think its shit”.
The second part of Melancholia, taking place the next day, moves Claire to the forefront of the narrative. Obsessively scouring the internet for information on the planet’s path against the better judgement of her delusively efficient and controlling husband John (Keifer Sutherland), Claire embodies the opposite of Justine’s resignation to inevitability, desperately clinging on to comforts and notions of normality. When she believes herself certain of the planet’s course, she drags her son into a golf buggy, heading “to the village”, towards people and familiarity, despite Justine’s assertion that this “isn’t about the village”, that there’s nothing there for her. Von Trier reprises his twinned, opposing images in various forms; the sisters taking (two) horse rides, their animals as differing in temperament as themselves, the two planets moving towards each other on a path to destruction, pictured from space amid glowing nebulae (oh, to have been a fly on the wall when he caught Tree of Life at Cannes), mother and daughter leaving the wedding to take inappropriately timed baths.
With his viciously acute lacerations of family, sisterhood, work, love, marriage and human needs and desires in general, with Melancholia von Trier appears to hold little dear, his view of the world is a deeply pessimistic one, one for which it appears he believes the only solution to be total annihilation. But, as is often the case, quite how much irony one detects in his evisceration of the human condition may well sway one’s judgement, after all, having completed Antichrist, he did announce that his next film would be a comedy. There’s no denying the power of Melancholia’s final moments, in which perhaps against his better judgement, one can detect the faintest glimmer of hope; a unification in the sisters’ disparity as they sit together, yin and yang combining to form a fractal set against oblivion.
Melancholia – 2011 – Denmark – 136 mins – Dir : Lars von Trier