Melancholia – not just a feeling, but a place.
“It began with…a music video?” is how Chantelle described Melancholia today. That certainly seems apt: you are presented with scenes, vignettes, each filmed at an intense 1000+ frames per second that make every detail of every scene burn itself into your retina and your consciousness. And over it all one mournful Wagner tune plays, slowing your heart rate and lowering you gently into a sense of unease. That same tune is the only music to be found in Lars von Trier’s stark portrait of depression and desolation. When you watch Melancholia you must keep those scenes in mind, for they are the shape of things to come.
Warning, there are some mild spoilers.
A brief summary: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is finding it hard to cope with the enforced joyfulness of her wedding to her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The more her family tries to engage her, the more she detaches from their embraces and their needs. This is compounded by the behaviour of her spectacularly neglectful parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), and her overbearing sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Even her brother in law John (Keifer Sutherland) gets in on the blame game, calling her selfish for not being happy at the ridiculously extravagant wedding that he has bankrolled and hosted at his luxurious estate. The only person who seems passively invested in her happiness is Michael, but even he cannot withstand the powerful force of Justine’s chronic depression. As relationships are strained by Justine’s actions, a new cause for concern presents itself: a planet, Melancholia, has been discovered on a course past Earth. The planet is bigger than our own, and appears in our sky larger than the moon. Whether or not it will collide with the Earth is cause for dissent, and it sets the stage for the dramatic climax of the film.
Melancholia feels like two different short films, linked by their characters. Indeed, it is separated into two parts, each named for one of the sisters. And what is fascinating to me is the contrast found between the subject matter and the focal character of each. In the first part, we are introduced to Justine, the advertising copy-writer, turned art director. Justine seems to be the flightier of the two, detached from reality and struggling to find her place in it. She describes herself as being dragged down by grey wool, and her sister Claire tries to snap her out of it, demanding that she let go of those dreary fantasies. Claire seems utterly exhausted in dealing with Justine, and yet drawn to her, obsessed with her well-being while being herself completely unable to cope with Justine’s depression. Justine wants to run away, to check out, and makes some bold moves to that effect. She quits her job on the night of her promotion, with a spectacular burning of the bridge between her and her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård). And through a determined lack of action, she allows her brand new husband to walk out of her life. It seems like a laser-guided approach to hitting rock-bottom. And so her story would have ended there, except for Claire dragging her back to the estate to nurse her back to health. Claire is the grounding force, the rock to Justine’s river. And thus it is disconcerting when it is during Claire’s half of the film that the planet Melancholia and all of its ominous beauty is introduced.
The planet is blue, and seems to be devoid of life. Its path is calculated to pass close by Earth, interfering with our electronics and even drawing away a bit of our atmosphere. Claire’s husband John is an astronomy aficionado, and he is constantly reassuring Claire that “the scientists” are certain that it will pass Earth by safely. But the estate in which they live is very remote, disconnected from the outside world, and so Claire has only John’s opinion to sooth her concerns. As Melancholia approaches she finally takes to the Internet to find an alternative view point. This leads her to an alternative hypothesis of Melancholia’s projected path, and the prediction that it will loop around after the the fly by, and then collide with Earth. And during all of these events Claire has given herself the project of re-engaging Justine in the world again, with little success.
During part two it is revealed that Justine may have a preminatory ability of sorts. It seems that Claire is aware of this but has been doggedly ignoring it. Justine calmly reiterates that she “knows things”, and one of the things that she knows is that Life exists only on Earth, it will end soon, and that this is a good thing. Claire is torn between wanting to shut out her sister’s dire predictions, and her own increasing anxiety over Melancholia’s approach. She turns to her husband John for reassurance, but even he is unable to truly comfort her. When later his own confidence is shaken, Claire is left with no rock of her own.
The theme of loneliness is palpable in Melancholia, in Claire and Justine’s attempt to reach out to and connect with their loved ones. Justine tries fruitlessly to express her fears and deep sadness to her parents, but they have moved on with their lives and left no place for her. This parental neglect highlights the other theme of responsibility to others. Justine is responsible to Claire and John for her presence at her wedding; she is responsible to her husband Michael to be present in their relationship; Claire is responsible to John, to be a devoted wife; and John is responsible to both Claire and his son Leo (Cameron Spurr), to protect and provide for them. Ultimately everyone fails in their duties. Justine fails Claire, John, Michael, even her boss. John spectacularly fails Claire and Leo. At the end even Claire fails in her duties as a mother, as during Melancholia’s final approach it is Justine who helps young Leo prepare.
The message of Melancholia is in no way optimistic. It seems to be a quite dire warning that literal melancholia will only separate and destroy people, with no hope of averting the disaster. As the planet approaches, Justine seems to find her centre of calm and serenity that was beyond her grasp when she was faced with the demands of life and love. Justine gives in to the planet’s arrival completely, and is able to reach a protective Zen state, while Claire is left desperately trying to cling to the world that she understands.
A wonderful detail in the film is actually a lack of something: it’s the complete absence of other people. The estate exists like an island, remote from the rest of the world. The plot begins when the married couple arrives on the property, and we as the audience never leave. It adds beautifully to the sense of isolation that each character feels in their own skin, but also serves a very practical need. How could you tell the story of a world-ending stellar collision while focusing solely on the feelings and reactions of two sisters if the movie took place in a city or town? By stranding them all at the house we are able to really sit back and zoom in on every nuanced moment of some heartbreakingly honest performances.
Every actor in Melancholia shines as bright as the planet itself. Kirsten Dunst tackles the withdrawn, emotionally tortured Justine with a subtlety that is painful to watch. You can feel the fatigue that emanates from every pore in her body, and it is exhausting to behold. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a very controlled but increasingly distraught Claire with a nervous energy that brings to mind the horses that the two sisters ride. Every movement, every glance betrays her frustration with Justine, or her shaken confidence in John. The only thing lacking is a real sense of relationship between Claire and her son Leo. It is difficult to tell, though, whether or not that is a directorial choice. The parental figures in this world of childish adults are all absent in spirit, if not in physical presence. With the exception of Keifer Sutherland’s John, the rest of the cast have appearances so short they almost seem to be cameos. But they are brilliant cameos, from John Hurt’s infantile lothario, to Charlotte Rampling’s bitter and vitriolic Gabby. Even Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård take the limited time they have on screen and really work with it. There is a cute nod toward their real-life relationship, as Stellan’s character Jack is the best man to Alexander’s Michael. But a real surprise performance comes from Kiefer Sutherland. As a man he is arrogant, demanding and selfish; as a husband he is soft, gentle, and completely giving. That is, until the reality of Melancholia’s approach becomes too much for him, and then his own needs win out over those of his family.
Lars von Trier has presented us with an apocalyptic vision that is about so much more than the end of life. Melancholia is less about making you think, and more about making you feel. The thematic music chords that reoccur throughout are almost an instruction: feel sad, feel lonely, feel frightened. And yet, when the end came and the credit rolled, I found myself instead feeling hopeful, inspired and glad. Glad that the worst hasn’t happened, that the world is not about to end. Is this an accidental product of von Trier’s work? Or are we meant to shake ourselves from the dread he has so carefully crafted, and instead join John in his toast: to Life. Life is still here, and we should celebrate it.