“Melancholia” (2011). Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Spurr, Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier, Jesper Christensen. Director: Lars von Trier. Screenplay: Lars von Trier. www.melancholiathemovie.com/
Is death the end, or is there more to existence than that? That question has kept philosophers occupied for eons, and some would say we’re no closer to an answer now than we ever have been. Despite that, the debate rages on, with the latest argument being offered up in one of this year’s most anticipated metaphysical releases, director Lars von Trier’s hauntingly beautiful, often-disturbing science fiction fantasy, “Melancholia.”
On what should be the happiest day of her life, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) seems disinterested in, and frequently absent from, the lavish wedding reception given for her and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The event, hosted by Justine’s duteous sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), paid for by her well-heeled brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and orchestrated by a persnickety, high-brow wedding planner (Udo Kier), takes place at an opulent country club estate, the ideal setting for a storybook social affair. But, rather than engage in and enjoy the meticulously scripted festivities, the young bride seems more content to go off on her own, visiting her favorite horse at the estate’s stables, slipping away for a soak in her private bath and staring at the stars in the night sky, a diversion that inexplicably fascinates her.
As this alleged celebration wears on, Justine grows progressively more unsociable and withdrawn. Her sometimes-belligerent, sometimes-aloof behavior increasingly exposes a profound sense of discontent and depression that apparently has been simmering beneath the surface for some time. Her actions are arguably understandable, though, considering the many sad, stressful conditions surrounding her. For starters, there are the vindictive quarrels between her divorced parents, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a woman who embodies acrimony, and Dexter (John Hurt), a fun-loving but impulsive, undependable father who never seems to have time for the daughter who so desperately craves his attention. Then there’s Justine’s pompous, overbearing boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), who’s so relentless in milking his gifted employee that he expects her to come up with results even on her wedding day. And, of course, there’s Claire and John, who so desperately want the reception’s festivities to transpire according to plan that their uptight attitudes take all the fun out of things. With circumstances deteriorating at an accelerating pace, all Justine can do is turn her attention to the one thing that captivates her – the cosmological events unfolding in the sky above.
Months after the ill-fated reception, Justine’s debilitating depression becomes so severe that she’s no longer capable of caring for herself. She moves in with Claire and her family, who struggle to attend to her needs. But, as arduous as caring for Justine is, Claire and her family must also prepare, each in their own way, for an even larger impending crisis, one that has the potential to impact all of mankind – the Earth’s close encounter with an enormous rogue planet known as Melancholia.
Scientists publicly express confidence that there’s no danger of a collision between the two planets, but conspiracy theorists doubt the official proclamations, offering up an array of alternate prognostications. Claire grows increasingly paranoid about these predictions, obsessively worrying about how events will unfold. After all, how can a perfectionist who becomes flustered over minor glitches in social itineraries be expected to cope with living in a world that may be on the verge of destruction?
Ironically, as catastrophe looms ever larger, Justine becomes more lucid; in fact, she even seems reconciled to what may be about to happen. As Claire falls apart emotionally, Justine steps up and begins taking care of the sister who once took care of her, their roles essentially switching. But, despite Justine’s efforts at helping Claire cope, she also offers no false hope about the future; she believes that all she can do under these conditions is to try and help her sister learn a lesson in the only option that now appears open to them – acceptance of their circumstances.
If the foregoing plot summary sounds strange, you’re right. “Melancholia” has one of the most unusual narratives of any film to come out in quite some time. Even its format is unconventional: It opens with a cinematically gorgeous prologue that offers glimpses of events to come before launching into the main story, which is essentially divided into two parts, with one part devoted to each sister. In fact, it’s even a stretch to say that the film actually has a “story”; rather, it’s more of a meditation on a variety of themes in which the players serve as symbols of archetypes and concepts rather than as characters acting out plot events.
Given the plot summary and the film’s title, it’s easy to guess how this story line plays out. While I’m generally not one to divulge how movies end, in this case it’s obvious, the outcome having even been openly discussed by the director in promotional interviews. So, with that said, “Melancholia” is indeed a movie about the end of the world, but not just literally; it’s also symbolic of the passing away that occurs for some of us every day, either figuratively through emotional devastation or literally through death. Melancholia’s collision with Earth marks not only the destruction of our planet but also the end of each of the individual worlds created by all of us who dwell on it. And because it’s the nature of all things to eventually pass away, nothing can stop this eventuality from occurring, no matter how much wealth, power, privilege or scientific knowledge any of us might possess (something that Justine’s wedding guests might wish to ponder). In that regard, then, the destruction of each of our individually created worlds – represented here by those of the two sisters – are tragedies as great in their own way as the obliteration of the planet as a whole. The pathos in that is high drama to be sure, accentuated here by a highly stylized cinematic treatment.
What’s troubling, however, is that the film’s exploration of this idea stops here, going no further. Once the cosmic Armageddon occurs, the picture simply ends, offering not even the slightest glimmer of hope for what might – or, what many of us would say, will – come afterward. Many in the metaphysics community view death as a transition, a gateway, an opportunity to move on to something else, but “Melancholia” never broaches this notion, essentially leaving viewers with the simple conclusion that “when it’s all over, it’s all over.”
Perhaps forcing viewers to consider this unnerving possibility is the point of this film, pushing us to examine a consciously created probability that’s just as valid (even if not as palatable) as all the others we might manifest for ourselves. Then again, given the dispiriting nature of this picture, one might also wonder why anybody would want to sit through a two-hour exploration of the idea that “life sucks and then you die.”
Considering the film’s title and the name of the rogue planet, depression is obviously another central theme of the picture. It’s particularly interesting to see how it’s reflected through Justine, who seems to work through much of her depression about this astronomical apocalypse long before the big event (and long before any of the other characters in the movie, too). She appears to have sensed the catastrophe well ahead of time, which likely accounts for her despondent behavior at the wedding reception. But, by the time of the cataclysm, she comes to accept her fate, prepared for it while others scurry about frantically trying to figure out what to do. In this sense, Justine almost appears willing to embrace what lies ahead, as if she’s playing out her own personal Liebestod (German for “love death”), not unlike that of the characters in Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an opera that concludes with its own Liebestod (and the music of which is featured prominently in the picture’s soundtrack). In a similar vein, Justine’s bout with depression, followed by her subsequent acceptance of events, would appear to reflect the final two phases of the five stages of dying theorized by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, thus bringing together the themes of death, depression and acceptance that permeate this film.
“Melancholia” represents an audacious attempt at dealing with a difficult subject (and one that many of us would probably just as soon ignore). The picture is beautifully filmed (despite some occasionally annoying hand-held camera work) and features terrific production values across the board. Dunst turns in the best work of her career in a performance that earned her the best actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Give kudos to Rampling and Hurt, too, though it would have been nice to see them both used more than they were.
The Wagner-based soundtrack works well for the most part, although it verges on overkill at times. The symbolic significance of employing music from an opera known for its Liebestod might be seen as a little obvious, even though, ironically enough, no excerpts from the specific portion of the opera that is today known as the Liebestod are used in the film; the hopeful, uplifting chords of this musical passage were probably deemed inappropriate given the overall mood of the picture.
Perhaps my biggest complaint, though, lies with the writing. Despite the picture’s inventive approach in handling its subject, I ultimately found the narrative one-dimensional, never veering from its singular course nor showing any willingness to even touch upon other viewpoints. Its unrelentingly dreary narrative could be likened to the work of Ingmar Bergman on steroids. Moreover, the script is somewhat tedious and repetitive at times, particularly in the film’s second half; with the outcome never in doubt, I often found myself having to stifle the urge to shout out “Get on with it already!” There have also been assertions that the astronomical events are based on some dubious scientific contentions, though, because this story is meant to be seen symbolically, and because it is science fiction after all, I’m not as troubled by this as much as I am by some of the film’s other downfalls (though it certainly doesn’t help the picture’s case if these scientific issues aren’t presented as accurately as they could be).
In the end, “Melancholia” sees death as a dead end and nothing else, and I fundamentally have difficulty with that. I’d much rather devote my time to pictures that take a broader view, especially with a subject as important as this. It’s interesting to note that this is the second picture to come out this year with the theme of our world having a close encounter with another planet (the other being this past summer’s independent release, “Another Earth”; see my review in the VividLife archives). While the stories in these two films differ markedly from one another in many ways, they’re also similar in that they both deal with people facing everyday dramas in the wake of major cosmological events. In the view of “Melancholia,” there’s no hope, while in the view of “Another Earth,” there’s alwayshope, that the chance of redemption always exists, no matter what the circumstances. If given a choice on these two viewpoints, you probably wouldn’t have any trouble guessing which one I’d choose – and which movie I’d rather watch.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.