NYFF 2011: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

Originally published at Capital New York, for my coverage of the 2011 New York Film Festival

From its magnificent opening, reminiscent of a high-concept couture spread in Vogue Italia, with excruciating slo-mo, and a parade of surrealistic tableaux, all to the bombastic accompaniment of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, to its intensifying burn of an apocalyptic second half, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a powerful and dreamy portrait of the inevitability of disintegration and destruction, as seen through the deadened-by-sorrow eyes of Kirsten Dunst as Justine, whose wedding sparks a cloud of despair in her so deep she cannot be reached.

Danish director Lars von Trier is most often called a “provocateur” due to his bold visual style and often in-your-face storytelling, but the only thing von Trier has “provoked” in me in the past has been boredom and annoyance at the contempt he has for his audience. His defenders are many, and claim that you “don’t get it”, or you are “afraid” of the implications of his films, but none of that is true for me. I just find some of it rather silly. However, there is one thing to be said about von Trier’s films: they are 100% personal statements, and he approaches his projects with an uncompromising single-mindedness. He is impossible to dismiss. He should not be dismissed. His work deserves serious consideration, personal preferences put aside. In a world of increasing corporate domination, where cineplexes are filled with pumped-up sequels and mindless superhero franchises, a director like Lars von Trier is a bracing tonic, a reminder that cinema is, after all, an art form.

In Melancholia, he strikes an elegiac tone run through with mystery and nameless loss. The film is quite strange, and about half an hour too long, but on the whole I found it so compelling I couldn’t look away. It’s beautifully shot, with a blend of warm tones and chilly blacks and greens, every frame packed with interest and detail. The graduate-student philosophies of Antichrist and the childish need to “provoke” in Breaking the Waves were nowhere in evidence. Melancholia is a dark dream, a gritty fairy tale (complete with two sisters, one blonde, one brunette), told in a whimsical yet portentous tone, an odd uneasy blend reminiscent of the fever-dream of Edvard Munch’s paintings or the surrealistic hand-made boxes of Joseph Cornell.

During the aforementioned opening, we see Charlotte Gainsbourg struggling to run through the grass, holding a child, her feet plunging into the ground up to her knees. She screams in terror. We see Dunst, in gleaming wedding garb, moving in slo-mo through a forest, ropes of heavy grey yarn clinging to her limbs, impeding her movement. We see three solitary figures standing on a giant lawn under a Gothic full moon.

Combined with the Wagner, these images reverberate with a feeling of impending doom, giant events conspiring to wipe the light out of the sky.

Melancholia is split into two parts, one devoted to Justine (Dunst), and one devoted to Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, also the gynecologically-enraged lead in Antichrist). The first part of Melancholia unfolds over the course of Justine’s wedding to Michael (True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgård). Theirs is an expensive and lavish wedding, paid for by Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, in a very funny performance). Things do not go according to plan. Justine and Michael are hours late to their own reception. Justine’s participation in the reception rituals seems forced, and in moments of solitude despair floods into her eyes like an outside force.

Justine’s mother, Gaby (the magnificent Charlotte Rampling), shows contempt for the entire affair (her toast includes the words “I don’t believe in marriage), and Justine’s father, Dexter (John Hurt) is an eccentric buffoon. Justine is an ad exec with a company run by the corpulent and smug Stellan Skarsgård, father to the groom. And so she is marrying her boss’ son. There is a strange sense that all of this has been pre-arranged for her, or even foreordained. A passing-off of power, a handing-down of a legacy, with Justine a pawn in a much larger game.

Could this be the cause of her melancholia? Or could it be somehow connected to the anxious glances she throws up to the starry night sky from time to time? Glimmering in her wedding gown, late to her own reception, she stops suddenly and stares at the sky. Something up there doesn’t seem quite right. Her eyes scan the heavens. “What star is that?” she asks Claire. Claire is too annoyed at her sister’s lateness to answer, and hustles Justine inside to the waiting guests.

Lars von Trier, with mainly hand-held camera, films the reception as a riot of noise and movement, providing us with almost no backstory for any of these people, and yet the slo-mo surrealist-opera opening haunts every frame. Melancholia, like Malick’s Tree of Life is both an intimate story of one family as well as a contemplation on what these specks of humanity might mean in the grand scheme of things. Not all that much, it turns out (according to von Trier. Malick sees things otherwise.)

The second part of Melancholia belongs to Claire, the brunette sister, the “stable” one compared to the impulsive rebellious Justine. After the wedding, Justine has come to live with Claire and John. Her new husband is not mentioned and we never see him again. Justine has disintegrated so precipitously that she needs help undressing and bathing. Claire is very worried.

John is worried too but he is more taken up by a celestial event that seems to be happening, an event that Justine had already noticed on her own. The night of her wedding, she had glanced up at the dawn sky and saw that a star was suddenly missing. Antares, the brightest star in the Scorpio constellation, was no longer there. In the second part, the mystery is (somewhat) explained. There’s a planet is now blocking Antares, a planet no one has heard of before. The planet is named Melancholia, and the scientists predict that its trajectory may very well end up interfering with the earth, although it might miss the Earth, too. No one is sure what will happen.

John spends his time scouring the Internet for information, or standing on the vast patio staring up at the sky through a telescope, excited at his front-row seat in a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. Claire is in a barely controlled state of panic. Justine, who was aware of the approaching planet’s existence long before the rest of the world, accepts it all as inevitable. The planet begins to grow in the sky. Every day it looms larger. The scientists keep reassuring everyone on earth that Melancholia is supposed to start retreating any day now. Von Trier’s extended metaphor for depression and mental illness could not be more clear, or more elegant and evocative.

The grittiness of the special effects portraying the approach of Melancholia adds to the dazzling look of the film, its sparse sense of intensifying horror and doom. The sound drops out of the picture in the second half, and the air is filled with a barely concealed dull roar, the roar of Melancholia’s approach. It’s very eerie. Claire weeps for the inevitable destruction of the planet earth, weeping for herself, for her son, for the end of everything.

Justine says to her sister flatly, “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.”

This is the kind of line that has always annoyed me about Lars von Trier, but in this context, and in Dunst’s performance, it is the heart of the battle going on between the two sisters. Claire is not a happy person, and she wasn’t in the first part either. She’s anxious, she cares about appearances, she’s parentified. But when she realizes all of it – life, the planet, humanity – may be destroyed in a fiery apocalypse, she mourns it all. Justine, however, whose depression has prepared her for catastrophe, doesn’t fight the implications of Melancholia’s approach. She needs no learning curve. She already knows she is not in control of her own fate. Depression comes like a vast wave from the deep, or from the atmosphere above, and nothing can stop it. Melancholy’s effect is not emotional, but physical. We remember the image of Justine from the opening, a bride with grey yarn circling her limbs, impeding her progress through the dark forest. The image doesn’t seem so surreal anymore. It’s accurate.

Dunst, whose persona on film has often been effervescent and humorous, is a revelation in Melancholia. Her depression is tangible in the dark shadows in her eyes, the flatness of her affect. Dunst portrays throughout a woman in the grip of something, something she cannot name. In one scene, she goes into John’s study, where there are art books on display along the shelves. The pages are all open to colorful abstract paintings, blocks of reds and blues. Justine flips through the books, looking for paintings that more accurately reflect her mindset, she is looking for disturbing images of death and torture. Dunst goes very deep in Melancholia, and her performance is mysterious, compelling, and emotional.

We place a high premium on optimism in our society, so much so that pessimism is not socially acceptable. We are supposed to say to one another things like, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Time heals all wounds”, although experience tells us these bromides are patently untrue, or, at the very least, insufficient.

“Melancholia” was thought by the Greeks to be caused by an excess of “black bile”, one of the four humors that ruled the body: too much black bile leads to despondency. In his 1514 engraving entitled Melancolia I, German artist Albrecht Dürer portrays winged Melancholy sitting dejectedly, surrounded by the tools of geometry. On the horizon is a bright gleaming star in the black sky, with the words “Melancholia I” unfurling on a white banner.

Being melancholic is not pleasant, but it can also push us to greatness. This is not a popular sentiment, currently, when self-help books fill entire sections in bookstores. Being “happy” is seen as the greatest goal. In Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst embodies her own version of Dürer’s winged Melancholia. She is dejected as well, but her eyes are looking up, looking out. The tables have turned. Capable Claire shatters as the planet Melancholia approaches, and Justine takes on strength and power. The depressives among us often have a more realistic outlook on themselves and the world. In some situations, optimism is delusional. Tough facts must be faced head-on. Claire can’t do it. Justine can.

Sci-fi elements aside, Lars von Trier has crafted a personal intimate story, and his small intense cast create a microscopic sense of the cloistered airless belljar in which this family lives. When the dull roar of the approaching planet begins to fill the air in the second half, a strange peace of resignation comes over Justine’s deadened face.

Justine had been listening to that dull roar for weeks when nobody else could hear it. Now they can.

Melancholia is unnervingly powerful. The pursuit for knowledge and transcendence is never easy, and the rewards are few and far between. The world is dark and chaotic. But that gleaming light on the horizon, beckoning us on, calling us to it … what’s over there? What would it be like to stand in the full glare of that light? Who among us could bear it?

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