Warning: Most reviews (as well as the director) have been very open about the big events that occur in Melancholia, and this review will follow their example. While I don't think this knowledge subtracts from the movie in any way—in fact, I think it's essential—you should not read this review if you don't want to know.
"The world is always ending for someone." That's a line from Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's 1992 graphic novel Signal to Noise, which is about a time when the world didn't end: December 31, 999 A.D., the turn of the first millennium, when predictions about the end of the world failed to come to pass. Signal to Noise is also, however, about a filmmaker who is dying of cancer, trying to finish one last film—if only in his head—before his own personal apocalypse overtakes him. It is a book that contrasts global destruction with personal doom, and finds our reactions to each much the same. "We are always living in the final days," Gaiman writes. "What have you got? A hundred years, or much, much less, until the end of your world."
I thought of that book, and that dying filmmaker, while watching Melancholia, the beautiful and devastating new film by Lars von Trier. Gorgeously shot, and featuring amazing performances from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia is a romantic, elegiac film that works both as a metaphor for personal depression and as a lovely, lyrical fable about the end of the world. A powerful and effective work of art, Melancholia is easily one of the best films of the year.
Since his breakthrough hit Breaking the Waves in 1996, Lars von Trier has proven himself an extraordinarily talented and visionary director. He is also one of the most provocative, polarizing figures in world cinema today: one who courts (and achieves) controversy with his bleak world view, with his incredibly problematic treatment of female characters, and with his public statements that are often—sometimes intentionally, sometimes clumsily—incendiary. (It was the latter that sadly overshadowed the premiere of Melancholia at the Cannes Film Festival, and led the festival directors to take the unprecedented step of declaring Trier "persona non grata.")
How you feel about Lars von Trier will largely depend on whether you believe his intent. There are those—like Dennis Denby at The New Yorker—who think he's a fraud, an "avant gardist for saps" whose only goal is attention through shameless provocation. Me? Though I haven't seen all his films, I happen to think he's sincere, and therefore that rarest of birds: an absolutely fearless artist. However much I hate some of his movies—and there is no power on Earth that could make me sit through Antichrist again—I think Trier is using his considerable talents to explore his own tormented soul, and inviting us to follow—or not—where his dark, deeply personal visions take him. We may be disquieted—or even repelled—by the soul he's exploring, but there are precious few artists in any media with that kind of audacious courage; I personally think that they should be celebrated like astronauts, even if we don't always like what they bring back from their explorations.
Trier has been very open about his own depression, and has said that it was a recent struggle with the disease that led to his two most recent films, Antichrist and Melancholia. The first of these, Antichrist, is a brutally graphic, deeply flawed, sadistic piece of filmmaking that is as thoroughly unpleasant as any movie I've ever seen: it's an unrestrained primal scream on film, jagged and piercing and horrible in nearly every way. If we take Trier at his word about his own illness (and, again, some do not), Antichrist can be seen as the most severe form of depression: the raging, self-destructive phase, the hateful urge to destroy and be destroyed.
(Bitchy side-note: Trier is infamous for putting his actresses through hell, and getting extraordinary performances from them in the process. Though I have doubts about the movie it serves, I believe Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance in Antichrist is one of the most painful and powerful ever captured on film. Gainsbourg deservedly won the Best Actress honors at Cannes that year, and—whatever people think of the film—it makes me insane to think that she was not even nominated for an Oscar in a year that Sandra-Fucking-Bullock took home a trophy.)
If Antichrist is about the darkest, most out-of-control side of depression, Melancholia is about a different side of the same disease: the crippling dread, the ever-present sense of looming menace, the steady gravitational pull of a nameless void that seems to suck all the air and joy out of life.
As a result, it is a quieter, more restrained, more serene film. (Those of you who may have—understandably—sworn off Trier forever after the excesses of Antichrist or Dogville should not be afraid to see Melancholia.) It is also surprisingly funny, unquestionably beautiful, and strangely—almost inexplicably—uplifting.
Leave it to Lars von Trier to find what may be his most life-affirming story in the end of the world.
Melancholia opens with an extraordinary eight-minute sequence of painterly images: stunning, perfectly composed tableaux that unfold in extreme slow motion beneath Wagner's prelude to Tristan and Isolde. We see a garden where every object casts two shadows. We see birds falling from the sky, and a horse collapsing to the ground. We see a young bride running through the woods, gripped by menacing tendrils, and a mother running across a golf course, carrying her son in panic and despair. Finally, among other images, we see the Earth colliding with, and being totally annihilated by, a planet ten times its size. Though the images seem like surreal dreams—and some of them are—they also compose an overture for the entire film. In one way or another, everything we see will come to pass.
This prelude accomplishes many things, and one of them is to fill the audience with a sense of foreboding: Trier tells us, plainly, that the film will end with the destruction of the Earth, and so we view everything else through the same doom-tinted lens with which the depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) views her life. Melancholia is split into two parts, and the first focuses on Justine on what is supposed to be the most important and happiest day of her life: her wedding day. As the segment opens, the young bride and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) are painfully late for their own reception, inching their way down an impossibly winding road in a ridiculously long stretch limousine. The scene is played lightly, for laughs, but the metaphor—which will return throughout—is one of struggle, of hard, slogging, nearly impossible forward motion. The beautiful white car is Justine in her beautiful white dress, both ill-suited to the occasion but gamely going through the motions.
I have never been a particular fan of Dunst, but she is both well-cast and wonderful in Melancholia. Trier makes good use of her "manic pixie dream girl" persona by turning it on its ear, showing us the phoniness and desperation inherent in her chipper, perky exterior. On the surface Justine is flighty, bubbly, even silly, but it doesn't take us long to realize it's all an act: in reality she is deeply depressed, and almost totally incapable of joy. In fact, as everyone but the groom seems to know, the entire wedding is something of a farce, an absurdly elaborate (and expensive) pantomime designed by Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich, prickly husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) for the sole purpose of forcing Justine to be happy.
One familiar condition of depression is the sense that the sufferer is simply going through the motions of life, pretending to be normal, feigning the right emotional responses while actually finding everything painful, phony, or trivial. Trier, cleverly, delivers us an entire wedding that makes Justine's perceptions literal: it all is horrible and phony and trivial. Though Claire is acting out of love and concern, her cloying attentions are oppressive and patronizing. John is a bastard, concerned only about appearances and money. Justine's boss (Stellan Skarsgård), an advertising mogul, is hounding Justine for a tagline on her wedding night. Justine's parents, Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), are, respectively, shamelessly immature and scathingly bitter. (Hurt and Rampling are both excellent here, and both get laughs for different reasons. Justine's father is hitting on every woman in sight, and mischievously tormenting the waiters, while Rampling's Gaby is openly, vindictively hostile. "Enjoy it while it lasts," she says in her wedding toast. "I myself hate marriages…especially when they involve some of my closest family members.") As various points in the evening Justine reaches out to both of her parents for help, which neither provides.
The cosmic event that we have been promised is almost nowhere to be seen in this first segment—Justine simply notices a star in the Scorpio constellation has oddly vanished from the sky—but thanks to the prologue Trier has ensured that we are thinking about it throughout the wedding, and are therefore projected into Justine's depressed frame of mind: none of this matters. From the petty manipulations of her boss, to the sappy, obtuse attentions of her husband, to all the wedding rituals like cutting the cake, throwing the bouquet, and guessing how many beans are in a jar—it's all trivial and pointless and nearly unbearable. Justine struggles to fake her way through it, with decreasing success, until the entire farce unravels. "I tried, Claire," Justine says to her sister, when they've both given up the game, and her sister can only concede that yes, she tried.
The second half of the film opens some time after the wedding, and focuses on Claire's point of view. Justine, now severely depressed, has come to stay with Claire, John, and their 7-year-old son Leo (Cameron Spurr) at the same family château where the reception took place. John and Leo are excited for the arrival of Melancholia, the planet that has appeared in the sky on its way to what John assures Claire will be a harmless "flyby" of Earth—but Claire is frightened, having heard more ominous predictions about the new planet's path.
At first Justine is nearly paralyzed by her depression, but she seems to draw strength as the planet looms closer. As Claire becomes more and more afraid, Justine becomes more and more serene: Trier seems to be saying that the depressives are the prophets of the Earth, the only ones who understand—and are prepared for—the ways in which the universe really works.
Dennis Denby, in that New Yorker review linked above, criticizes Trier's use of Tristan and Isolde throughout Melancholia. "This amazing piece," he says, "is not about the end of the world. It’s about the beginning of something—a yearning so strong that it can end only in death, but a glorious passion nonetheless." This, to me, is evidence of how badly he has misinterpreted Melancholia, for the film is about longing. Melancholia, the planet, is Justine's depression made manifest: it is as though she has summoned the planet through her longing for an end to her suffering, and to the evils of life itself that only she seems to perceive. "The Earth is evil," she tells her sister. "We don't need to grieve for it." Justine greets the apocalypse as a lover, as Claire discovers when she follows her and discovers her laying naked by a stream, basking in the planet's glow.
Melancholia is clearly inspired, in part, by the Marquis de Sade's Justine, in which an innocent young woman suffers unimaginably, enduring a lifetime of abuse, rape, and torture. At the end of Justine, the main character takes shelter with her sister—who bathes her and cares for her, just as Claire does here—but still longs for death:
"That is what I have received from mankind, that is what I have learned of the danger of trafficking with men; is it any wonder that my soul, stung, whipsawed by unhappiness, revolted by outrage and injustice, aspires to nothing more than bursting from its mortal confines?"
In Sade's story, Justine receives her death when she is struck by lightning—which is used throughout as a symbol of divine justice—and the implication is that the death comes as a mercy. Here, too, there is a palpable sense of relief that comes with the end of the world, and Justine's serene acceptance is contrasted with Claire's panicked, desperate fear for herself and her son. Both actresses are extraordinary here, and the mounting tension of the last act is quiet, beautiful, and nearly unbearable.
I said that Melancholia was almost inexplicably uplifting, though I find myself somewhat at a loss to explain why a film about the end of the world left me so edified and inspired. In part it is because the film itself is so beautiful: Trier's direction, and the cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro, are simply gorgeous. (Trier draws—often explicitly—on imagery from art, most notably the works of Pieter Bruegel, whose works frequently contrast human endeavors with the indifference of nature.) Dunst, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year, gives a wonderfully complex performance, but Gainsbourg possibly outshines her in the less-showy role of the woman who doesn't view the end of the world as a blessing.
Compared to the chaos and bitterness of what was supposed to be the best day of her life—her wedding day—the second half of Melancholia, building up to the worst day imaginable, is the most exquisite combination of tension and peace. Trier—wisely, if unrealistically—eschews most of the common tropes of a disaster movie: though Claire surfs the internet at one point to learn about the worst case scenario of Melancholia's approach, at no point in the film does any character turn on a television set. We see no hysterical news reports, no panicking townspeople, no riots or chaos or mass suicides. The microcosmic focus of this cosmic disaster film gives Melancholia a quiet, existential integrity. The world is always ending for someone, and, on a day in which everything ceases to matter, the lives of these four people matter as much as anything in history ever has.
Though less intentionally offensive, I fully expect Melancholia to be as divisive as most of Trier's films: many viewers will find it pretentious, implausible, and almost unbearably slow. (If at all possible, I highly recommend seeing it in the theater, where the incredible imagery is best served and where you will be more encouraged to embrace its slow, mesmerizing rhythms.)
Trier's word-view is unarguably bleak, and the weight of his vision can be hard to take. But the elegance, beauty, and grace he and his cast bring to this lovely, lyrical apocalypse are almost enough to make one believe that life is worth living after all.