Another godsend for newsgathering minions is when a famous person expresses “sympathy” for Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, as Lars Von Trier supposedly did at a press conference at Cannes earlier this year. Trier, an idiot savant if there ever was one, was extrapolating carelessly on his genetic ancestry, having recently learned of his German bloodline. His words were taken out of context and French authorities went into a huff. Melancholia, his very great film about a planetary collision wiping out the earth and all existence was disqualified from the Palme d’Or competition.
I don’t know anyone who’s ever named Lars Von Trier as a favorite director. His aesthetics can be wildly inconsistent—in addition to directing lush, surreal melodrama, he is one of the founders of the anti-Hollywood Dogma 95 movement, which among some of its manifesto points, insists on using unknown actors, natural lighting and diegetic music. Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, among other famous names and beginning with a special-effects laden series of moving stills depicting the end of the world to the music of Richard Wagner’s dramatic Tristan und Isolde is decidedly not the latter. Nevertheless, for all its Hollywood stars and high-concept content, Melancholia is very European in tone, execution, and ultimately, pessimism.
If a diabolical European filmmaker is going to sabotage our relation with certain beloved tropes then, he may as well begin the story with a white wedding at a Cinderella-style castle, celebrating a bride and groom whose love story is utterly doomed. Justine (Dunst), a gorgeous, busty blonde is to marry handsome nice guy Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at her sister, Claire’s (Gainsbourg) and husband, John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) sprawling garden estate. Claire has taken the trouble to organize the gala and John has bankrolled an event with hundreds of beautiful people in attendance. The problem is Justine: she suffers from crippling depression and tends to disappear in key ceremonial moments.
We don’t know why Justine is sad. She’s a successful copywriter but she doesn’t like her job (her boss is a slimeball played by Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard). Her divorced parents make spectacles of themselves. Her father (John Hurt) is a philandering, unserious drunkard while her mother (Charlotte Rampling) could win a cinematic award in the category of World’s Worst Mom for her bitchiness (she condemns the institution of marriage in her dinner speech and when Justine turns to her in a moment of need has only cold-blooded pragmatism for comfort). Let’s face it: there is no such thing as ‘normal’ and most people have crazy parents so though you may feel ashamed when your father makes an ass of himself at your wedding table, it’s not entirely destabilizing. After all, the sister, Claire, is well adjusted, thoughtful, and kind.
It appears then that Justine’s sadness may be of the more inexplicable kind—a nihilism peculiar to certain personalities susceptible to “What’s the point?” thinking. It afflicts those too sensitive of the misery and suffering in the world, for whom the benefits of material security and distraction are of little comfort. It is rather sourceless, or rather, existence itself is source enough.
Justine fails not just on bridal protocol but on moral terms as well, avoiding intimacy with and abandoning Michael to be alone, dragging her gown on the golf course, taking a bath, peeing in the garden and at the moment she should be consummating her marriage, fornicating with a relative stranger on the 18th hole. The planet set to collide with Earth is yet just a speck in the sky but Melancholia is already a disaster film.
With such inauspicious beginnings, the marriage never gets off the ground and following a complete nervous breakdown, Justine moves into the fairy tale castle with John and Claire and their five-year-old son, Leo. A few weeks have passed and it is understood that the rogue planet— named by astronomers as Melancholia— will pass very close to Earth without destroying it, a “fly-by.” Nevertheless, there is an alternative slingshot theory called the “dance of death” that argues that Melancholia will collide with the Earth, though scientific details are somewhat vague. But science is not the point. Trier’s interest is not astrophysics but psychology— how would uniquely polarized personalities deal with the specter of absolute extinction?
Claire, who appreciates her wonderful life and thus has much to lose by certain death, is understandably agitated. On the other hand, Justine feels a kinship with a planet describing her acute condition (she bathes naked in its reflected light one night). That it might destroy the earth gives her a certain amount of vindication and through the ordeal, she is abnormally calm if not excited about total annihilation. It’s what she’s been waiting for her entire life.
Lunacy Never Looked So Sexy
Hollywood has a long tradition of end-of-the-world thinking. This makes sense, as after putting together civilization, man has seemed certain of its inevitable destruction (the early 1940s and WWII must have been a boom time for self-professed nihilists). Doomsayers like their fin de siecle preordained, the most topical one being the Mayan calendar and the pseudo-science arguing that the poles will move setting off titanic earthquakes, biblical floods and for the survivors, floating arks to which to start over (already filmed by eminent disaster film guru Roland Emmerich as 2012). When December 21st, 2012, passes without incident, the world’s Chicken Littles will come up with a novel day and method for our demise, sure as tomorrow’s sunrise. Always, it seems there is some cult of fear that gathers enough momentum to infiltrate our collective consciousness— a real pain in the ass for those who enjoy themselves and believe that life on earth is getting better, not worse.
Eschatological tales have great dramatic potential with a mass audience and Hollywood is wise to capitalize on our fears as such, though its enterprises are often incompetent and buffoonish. The nationalistic Armageddon is among the very worst offenders of bad taste. The problem in nearly all disaster films—rendering them unwatchable for intelligent viewers— is their scattered lack of focus. Instead of the particular, they focus on the general, jumping around the globe, introducing and then ignoring characters in the buildup to the disaster which then becomes this horrible MTV-style edited mess of CGI nonsense that has no coherence for those of us who have not hot-wired our brains on video games and Michael Bay filmmaking technique. The effect then is not urgency but utter boredom.
What is so very great about Trier’s Melancholia is that we have no idea how the world is reacting to the news of apocalypse— we suffer the fear and resignation with a single family living in an opulent setting isolated from the rest of humanity. There is no television or radio sculpting our emotions, just the phenomenon of the approaching planet itself. No one in this family is capable of doing a thing to prevent destruction should it occur so we are left merely with dealing with it. I cannot think of another disaster film that has let alone the problem solving to focus exclusively on characters that cannot be proactive, who merely react with one line of thought or another until that speck in the sky is the harbinger of our ultimate end.
When the time to die is at hand and Justine’s life philosophy ascendant, she espouses to a desperate and distressed Claire that life on earth is “evil” and we are “alone in the universe.” It’s not a viewpoint one wants to cling to in mortally bad circumstances and again, for optimists it’s a rather dour summation of existence. But for all that, Melancholia finishes beautifully. Of course, how one faces death is more suggestive of one’s character than how one dies, a point asserted with the film’s terrific ending, one of the most dramatic, beautiful, cosmic final flourishes rivaling any movie ever made.
Though we live in the Age of Terror, it’s important to point out that for about forty-five years vis-à-vis the scheming Soviets we were on the brink of mutually assured destruction, a fact of life Generation Y readers cannot contemplate and for this author is a distant childhood memory. That nuclear war has been relegated to history books is just one instance demonstrating human progress. Life on earth is not entirely evil and we are not necessarily alone in the universe. There are many reasons to believe in the Hollywood happy ending, the most important of which is that it suits a beautiful, fulfilling life.
I may be wrong and the end may be nigh—until then we will have to live vicariously through the imagination of depressive dreamers. You can do a lot worse than spending two hours in the dark with Lars Von Trier and friends. One does not need to share his discontent to pleasure in his glorious end-all-be-all. “To life,” John toasts his wife when they mistakenly believe themselves to be in the clear. “To good cinema,” I raise my beer can from a temporarily safe cosmological vantage point.