The first few minutes of Lars von Trier‘s genre-defying film Melancholia do what so few films in recent memory have done: celebrate the unexpected. A woman in a bridal dress? Birds falling slowly to earth and horses collapsing on their rear ends? A dark planet drifting through space? The “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde playing in the background? And it’s all shot in super-slow motion. Later on, these seemingly disparate elements will begin to make sense, but they ultimately will leave the viewer in a state of quiescent post-contemplation, never clarifying their intentions with semaphores.
Rather than functioning as pieces in a shallow, viewer-solvable puzzle, these elements are markers of Trier’s visionary deterministic allegory in which a planetary collision will ultimately have a greater impact on free will and mental sanity than on Earth. Melancholia is a science fiction film of sorts, but there are no spaceships, futuristic metropolises, or little green men. It’s more of an existentialist drama with a sci-fi backdrop. Melancholia may be the name of the planet in question, but implicit in the film’s eponymous title is an exploration of human sadness and our ability to cope with the realization that, infinitesimal specks as we are, our destiny does not lie within our control.
After all, the clinically depressed did not choose to be born that way. Plagued by depression himself, von Trier understands this only too well, and he reflects this understanding in his central character, Justine (Kirsten Dunst). For most women, a wedding day is the peak of happiness; there’s plenty of time for the marital routine to engender hopelessness later on. But Justine can’t seem to wear smiles for even a few hours of hob-nobbing, small-talking, and dancing at the reception on the family’s estate. Before the cake is cut, she retreats to her room and the shelter of her bed. We aren’t sure whence her deep doldrums have arisen, though events at the party offer up some clues.
A dysfunctional home life seems partly to blame. We witness her bumbling father Dexter (John Hurt), a kindhearted but ineffectual drunkard, slur his words while proposing embarrassingly personal toasts. And her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), who seems to have little to offer up but prunish remonstrances, and not just of Dexter’s behavior. It seems nothing Justine has done has met with her mother’s approval, and that includes her choice of marriage partner (probably transference connected with the mother’s own disintegrating marriage). Strange, for Justine’s new hubby seems a decent sort and a pretty good catch if it weren’t for his dishwater dullness. Or perhaps her eminently pragmatic sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a root cause of Justine’s mental sickness. After all, comfort, success, and children have all been fruits of Claire’s marriage to her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). The mother’s evident preference for Claire’s life decisions is a recipe for Justine’s feelings of inadequacy.
Watching the conversations and interactions between the characters at the wedding reception — which von Trier shoots in a naturalistic, cinéma vérité style — made me think of Sartre‘s famous statement on misanthropy: L’enfer c’est les autres (“Hell is other people.”) Indeed, it is the claustrophobia of von Trier’s vision that makes Melancholia at once such a gripping and disturbing experience. Even after the guests leave, we, like Justine, are trapped at one location, and our fear escalates as we hope to avert the impending interplanetary doom.
Von Trier’s Danish heritage and depiction of a woman on the brink of her demise have often led to comparisons with his predecessor and countryman, the great auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer. And rightly so. Like a Joan of Arc or Gertrude. Justine becomes a victim of the inevitability of destiny, although the nature of her plight is not analogous to Joan’s saintliness or Gertrude’s insatiable need for love. Further, the cold determinism of Melancholia seems at odds with Dreyer’s warmth, hope, and religious fervor and sometimes appear more reminiscent of a conflicted soul like Ingmar Bergman, in whose work the theme of mental illness figures prominently (in films like Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence).
It would seem Von Trier still has much to learn from his great cinematic forefathers about script tautness and structure, however. The film’s nearly 2.5-hour running time, coupled with its weighty doomsday scenario and aloof philosophical tone,may cause drooping eyelids rather than heart palpitations as the film’s suspense sags about halfway through. But the film maintains buoyancy through the final stages as a result of both the strength of its concept and the grim, edgy portrayal of Kirsten Dunst in the lead role. Annoyed as we might be by Kiefer Sutherland’s wooden reassurances to his wife that scientists could never have incorrectly predicted so cosmic an event, Dunst’s alternating histronics and zombie-ish demeanor convey a powerful interpretation of a woman in the throes of madness.
Indeed, this film is nothing if not powerful. What it lacks in screenwriting polish, it makes up for in cosmic thrills. It is a glimpse into that other world whose existence we often forget about, a world where the spirit has triumphed over uncertainty and doubt. And for the artist in each of us, that should be a comforting thought.
Joe’s Grade: A-