The notorious Dogme 95 elitist Lars von Trier hanged Bjork (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), forced Jorgen Leth to remake his 1967 short The Perfect Human in the red light district of Bombay (The Five Obstructions, 2003), and showcased the genital mutilation of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, 2009). With Melancholia, he destroys the world by way of planetary collision, a grim and dazzling sequence which bookends the film. “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it,” Justine (Kirsten Dunst) says indifferently, thus delivering the bleak thesis. Deeply depressed dread lingers from the first shot to the last. Lars von Trier shows significant restraint with this effort, having created a film aligned with his Dancer in the Dark, but still painfully ignores the fine art of subtlety to once again take audiences into the abyss.
Melancholia is molded in two parts and an introduction. The introduction is reminiscent of the introduction to Antichrist, both of which unfold in lengthy slow-motion sequences set to music and without spoken word. Antichrist‘s introduction is a linear occurrence of the accidental death of He and She’s son while they have sex, whereas Melancholia burns in apocalyptic abstraction. The still, centered images vary from Justine’s admiration of her electrified fingertips, Justine peacefully floating in a clear green pond in her wedding dress (Melancholia‘s iconic image, a gorgeous recreation of John Everett Millais’s painting “Ophelia”), and outer space observances of a planet known as Melancholia obliterating Earth. Both of these introductions arguably represent Trier’s most achingly beautiful compositions as a filmmaker and set the standard for heart-wrenching slow-motion storytelling; they are short films in and of themselves. The introduction also contrasts the cinematic style of Melancholia‘s two parts, which are handheld and jump cut frequent, typical of Trier.
“Part One: Justine” surprisingly opens in comedic light. Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are fashionably late to their wedding reception and it is obvious that Justine is carefree. That is, of course, until the reception is well underway. The reception is extravagant and takes place at an estate complete with an eighteen-hole golf course (John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, repeatedly stresses the size and stature of the golf course). As the reception continues, Justine’s optimism vanishes. Her parents, played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, argue in front of the guests and belittle the wedding. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, is the only character who acknowledges and understands Justine’s frustration and boiling depression. Justine escapes from the reception as often as possible to be alone and wallow. She does not want this bourgeoisie reception that she has been given. “I smile, I smile, and I smile.” By the end of the night Justine finds herself jobless and without a husband; she snaps and reaps what she has sewn.
“Part Two: Claire” offers a shift in perspective. Claire takes care of a seriously mentally ill Justine during the following days and becomes the focus. In Part Two, Trier provides the parallel downfall of Claire. She becomes increasingly worried about the planet Melancholia’s path through space and assumes that it will hit Earth rather than pass by. John repeatedly reassures her that scientists are mathematically convinced that Melancholia will pass. When Claire consults a recovered Justine about Melancholia, Justine claims, “I know things. Life is only on Earth. And not for long.” In the realm of Lars von Trier, Justine is right. When all is lost in the film’s final shot, the fade to black certainly feels hopeless. Claire erupts in tears. Justine welcomes the end.
Lars von Trier specializes in emotionally stripping his subjects to their core. With Justine, he initially presents her as a fun-loving gal who could not be happier. By the finale Justine has been fully dehumanized; her stare is cold, harsh, and empty. I believe that Trier is making a statement about the bourgeoisie lifestyle through Justine. At the reception, Justine is constantly smiling while in the public eye because she knows she has to be presentable to her luxurious guests. Being as presentable as possible is a bourgeoisie necessity. She is so sickened by the bourgeoisie customs that she quickly embodies all that she hates about it; Justine becomes a selfish monster in a glamorous white wedding dress prancing furiously as if she is above those around her. She makes a fool of her husband by having sex with her boss’s new and idiotic employee (Brady Corbet) on the golf course while wearing the wedding dress and then returns to her boss, Jack (Stellen Skarsgård), to inform him that he is a despicable and power-hungry menace, despite the fact that he gladly gave her a promotion earlier in the evening. She sees herself in Jack: a friendly and accomplished body with an ugly, reckless buried heart. Before Melancholia strikes Earth in one of the following days, Claire, a bourgeoisie enthusiast, asks Justine if they could sit together on the estate’s terrace and drink wine while the world ends. Justine replies, “You want me to have a glass of wine on your terrace? How about a song? Beethoven’s 9th. Something like that? Maybe we could light some candles? You want us to gather on your terrace, sing a song, have a glass of wine, the three of us. Do you know what I think of your plan? I think it’s a piece of shit. Why don’t we meet on the fucking toilet?” By freeing herself from the bourgeoisie, or rather freeing herself from being the woman whom she is supposed to be, Justine is damning those around her, which ultimately presents her as soulless and hateful. It is too easy to see that she urges Melancholia to destroy everything around her through her melancholia. As bourgeoisie as she may be, Claire is a caring sister who represents the good-natured souls existing within any and every cultural class. Justine’s demise is brought upon by her extreme self-awareness, whereas Claire’s demise resides in her overly emotional ignorance.
Leo (Cameron Spurr), Claire’s young son, is the common denominator between Justine and Claire. He represents purity because he is a child. Despite the extent of Justine and Claire’s melancholia, their love for Leo holds true. It may be the only form of real and genuine love presented by Lars von Trier in the film. Melancholia’s stance is the same as Antichrist’s: the innocence of a child is the only purity in the world. However, Lars von Trier destroys that purity, along with everything else.
Bryan Nixon is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Janine Gericke’s review of Melancholia here.
Director Lars von Trier
Screenplay Lars von Trier
Producer Meta Louise Foldager, Louise Vesth
Director of Photography Mauel Alberto Claro
Art Director Simone Grau
Editor Molly Marlene Stensgaard, Morten Højbjerg
With Kirsten Dunst (Justine), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), Alexander Skarsgård (Michael), Kiefer Sutherland (John), Stellen Skarsgård (Jack), John Hurt (Dexter), Charlotte Rampling (Gaby), Brady Corbet (Tim), Cameron Spurr (Leo), Udo Kier (Wedding Planner)