Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia

By Ezra Stead

Melancholia, Denmark / Sweden / France / Germany, 2011

Written and Directed by Lars von Trier

Melancholia is a very difficult and challenging film, and I can't honestly say I enjoyed every moment of it, but enjoyment is hardly the point when dealing with such a deep and intelligent examination of despair. Lars von Trier’s latest is by no means my favorite of his films, but I do feel much more charitable about than he apparently does. Here is what the great Danish artist / provocateur has to say, excerpted from his statement on the film’s official website: “This is cream on cream. A woman’s film! I feel ready to reject the film like a transplanted organ … I am confused now and feel guilty. What have I done? Is it ‘exit Trier?’ I cling to the hope that there may be a bone splinter amid all the cream that may, after all, crack a fragile tooth … I close my eyes and hope!”

As gifted a filmmaker as von Trier certainly is, he doesn’t seem to quite have the knack for self-promotion. Then again, this could be yet another example of the perverse, impish delight he seems to take in his own self-destruction, as most recently evidenced in his controversial “I am a Nazi” joke at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This is oddly appropriate to Melancholia, which, as the title suggests, is largely about the mysterious, fascinating pull of deep, all-encompassing depression, as well as the beauty and peace to be found in the complete destruction of absolutely everything. In fact, the latter – the incredibly gorgeous apocalyptic images that bookend the film – mainly functions as a metaphor for the former. The planet Melancholia, which has supposedly been “hiding behind the sun,” threatens to destroy all life on Earth as it draws near, yet it is also described as the most beautiful sight we will ever see. Depression may be always lurking just behind the nurturing light of life, but when it finally shows itself, we find that it is more absorbing and actually enjoyable, in a perverse way, than happiness.

After a slow-motion prologue that will undoubtedly stand alongside the Big Bang sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as the most unbelievably beautiful filmmaking of the year, we are introduced to Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), as they attempt to reach their wedding party, to be held at the lavish mansion of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her exceedingly wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), and their young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr). They are stymied in their efforts by their stretch limousine, which is too unwieldy to easily navigate the winding path to the house; this seems to bode ill for the party to come, and indeed the wedding it is meant to celebrate, but the tone so far is light and comical. The wedding party, once it begins, is actually the closest to comedy that von Trier has come since surprising all of his fans with his wonderfully absurd take on the screwball genre, The Boss of It All (2006), but there is an almost unbearable tension under the surface and the humor is dry and uncomfortable. This is not to say it isn’t very funny, though, particularly in performances by Charlotte Rampling as Gaby, Claire and Justine’s mother, and von Trier regulars John Hurt (Dogville, Manderlay) as Dexter, their father; Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) as Jack, Justine’s overbearing boss; and Udo Kier, who has appeared in practically every von Trier film, as a wedding planner.

Melancholia contains some of the year's most amazing filmmaking in only its first five minutes. As the party continues, however, the mood grows darker, as Gaby verbally pisses all over everything for which the party stands, Jack unpleasantly badgers Justine about her work, and Justine gradually sinks into an apparently not unusual state of despair. The second half of the film begins some unspecified time later with Justine, now so depressed she can barely even move, returning to the mansion so that Claire can take care of her. John is clearly not at all pleased about this arrangement, but he is more optimistic about the impending arrival of the planet Melancholia, only briefly glimpsed and barely mentioned in the film’s first half. John believes the planet’s orbit around the earth will be merely a natural fireworks display akin to Halley’s Comet, while Claire is increasingly concerned about the possibility that it will crash into Earth, obliterating all existence. John’s scientific rationalism and his attempts to blind Claire, as well as himself, to nature’s truth draws one of many interesting parallels between this and von Trier’s last film, Antichrist (2009), which was also made as a sort of therapeutic art project to treat his own clinical depression. As the planet moves ever closer and it becomes clear that it will crash into Earth, the personalities of the two sisters almost seem to reverse, with Claire becoming increasingly frantic and undone while Justine gains strength and autonomy, finding a sense of calm as she embraces the end of all things. In one scene, Claire finds her basking nude in the light of the planet’s blue glow, an elegant visual metaphor for the vicious cycle of wallowing in the tragic beauty of one’s own melancholy.

This is a very difficult and challenging film, and I can’t honestly say I enjoyed every moment of it, but enjoyment is hardly the point when dealing with such a deep and intelligent examination of despair. The cataclysmic final sequence sent chills rippling through my entire body and is a far more effective representation of total destruction than anything in the mega-budget guilty pleasure films of Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012), another Teutonic filmmaker who delights in depictions of apocalypse on a grand scale. However, von Trier’s take on this subject is a much more personal apocalypse of the sort endured by the female leads in his previous films – Emily Watson’s Bess McNeill in Breaking the Waves (1996), Bjork’s Selma Jezkova in Dancer in the Dark (2000), Nicole Kidman’s Grace Margaret Mulligan in Dogville (2003). Yes, the entire world is coming to an end with a ferocious bang, but what is clearly more important to von Trier and Melancholia is the whimper with which the worlds of Justine and Claire are snuffed out.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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