' ' Cinema Romantico: Melancholia

Monday, November 14, 2011


It begins with the end - the end of the world, that is. A rogue planet hidden behind the sun has made itself known and is on an imminent collision course with Earth. The wonderfully bombastic sounds of Wagner accompany a prologue that has no speaking, just characters, in haunting slow motion, appearing to embrace, or perhaps merely accept, their fate. It is the work of Lars von Trier, the Dogma 95 Douchebag, but seems more in line with Terrence Malick, strictly about the evocativeness of the images, story and, to some degree, sense abandoned. If a viewer had no prior knowledge of what "Melancholia" was about this might all seem insane and, yet, I strongly believe it would still eventually wash over that viewer with significant force. It is haunting, exquisite filmmaking.

We move backwards to the beginning, the first act, the hoity-toity wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) on the lavish estate, replete with an 18 hole golf course, of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Keifer Sutherland). Many of my friends have been married in the last few years and in discussing the details of the wedding ceremonies beforehand one theme emerges more than any other - you think it's your day but it's not really your day, it's everyone else's day. And this wedding first act is a sumptuous expression of that notion. John insistently reminding Justine how much everything cost. Claire insistent on ensuring the reception adhere to a particular schedule. Justine's boss (Stellan Skarsgård) going to absurdly extreme lengths to ensure his employee keep her mind on work even at her own wedding. The wedding planner who at one point says angrily of the bride, "She's ruining my wedding." My wedding! Not her wedding! MY WEDDING!!! There is one breathtaking shot that finds Justine, post-wedding cake cutting, having to stand with her husband and her family for pictures and Dunst applies a forced, trembling smile - a bit of wedding cake, it seemed to me, dangling from her chin - and her eyes shudder with each shutter of the camera. (And while she does exactly what the role requires throughout and does it excellently, for this and this alone Ms. Dunst deserves an Oscar nod.)

At first the pressure of the ceremony seems to be inducing a depression for Justine but we soon realize that, perhaps, she's just depressed. Her father (John Hurt) seems kind but scatterbrained and her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is one what might term a real piece of work. A bitter shrew with a blatant disregard of social skills she gives a toast in the form of denouncing the whole arrangement of marriage. Later both mother and just married daughter retreat from mingling to soak their sorrows in the bath. They are one in the same, and Justine's best efforts to fight off the fingerprints of her mother and get hitched to a kind if clueless man appear to have failed mightily.

In the film's second act Justine essentially morphs into a completely different person, her depression now so paralyzing she can barely drag herself to her sister's mansion to stay there as the focus of the story shifts to the rogue planet called Melancholia (ah, that ever subtle von Trier symbolism!!!) as it is set to approach Earth and slide, however frighteningly closely, right on by. At least that's what John, an amateur astronomer, keeps telling his wife and their son Leo. Claire doesn't seem convinced and spends most of the time in a panic, considering the possibility of this rogue planet crashing into Earth means the world's end is roughly 5 days away. Justine, on the other hand, seems to become less weary, less despondent, and in a stunning speech she explains why. The Earth, she says, is an evil place filled with evil people and deserves a grisly end and not a moment later. After all, as the wedding reception showcased, the world is greedy, selfish and daft.

It is in this moment you realize that Justine is to von Trier what Owen Wilson was to Woody Allen in "Midnight In Paris" - namely, The von Trier Surrogate. Sensitive Americans are always harping on the filmmaker for being anti-American but I've always felt, and have written before, that, in fact, he's anti-Mankind, and I suspect "Melancholia" once and for all proves this point. In this film von Trier fancies himself a more artsy Ra's Al Ghul, the Earth "is beyond saving and must be allowed to die."

The final image is undoubtedly poetic. I cannot argue and, as always, I cannot argue Lars von Trier is a skilled filmmaker who firmly, expertly makes his points. But to behold this ending as merely romantic seems foolish. Ol' Lars is an allegorical mother-effer and this allegory hits with the force of, well, a whole planet, and I didn't necessarily find the allegory entirely lovey-dovey tragic. As it unfolds, Claire panics while Justine, at long last, seems perfectly calm.

Only complete annihilation of the human race can cure Justine of her melancholia. No thank you.


Derek Armstrong said...

It's funny, as I was reading the review I thought you liked the movie -- but your final sentence undercut that feeling.

Personally, I really got into it. Loved being able to just dial it up and order it on my TV late one Friday night a couple weeks ago.

I think it takes the beauty evident in Afterlife and combines it with not quite so much hatred. Which I guess is a positive thing for von Trier.

Derek Armstrong said...

And by "Afterlife" of course I mean Antichrist.

Nick Prigge said...

It was just the damndest movie. I thought it was kind of brilliant, assured filmmaking that really made its point with authority.

But what I took away as his point left me feeling revolted. Like I always do with his films.

Derek Armstrong said...

I prefer to think of it this way: Much of what happens is an extremely personal/intimate metaphor for what Justine is experiencing. It may be a rather too obvious metaphor -- like, when you're depressed, you feel like the whole world is coming to an end. But I think it functions that way, more than von Trier really saying that people in the world are evil. (To be fair, I think he's saying that also -- but more than anything, I think he's saying that people are effed up, and their screwed up behavior sometimes manifests itself in petty, evil forms.)

That said, it wouldn't be von Trier without a touch -- or more than a touch -- of misanthropy and nihilism. I just appreciated that there was less of it in this film than there has been in others.

Nick Prigge said...

That metaphor idea is an interesting one, and I've come across a few other people since seeing the film that have argued that too. Perhaps I distrust von Trier too much or maybe I could more onboard with that idea if he didn't have Justine sit down and literally say the Earth was an evil place.

I hope I can convey this properly but the fact there was less misanthropy in this particular film almost made it more tough to take, which goes back to why I think is a good film but one that I don't necessarily enjoy. His set-up was perfect and then he pulled out the rug.