I was one of the few who absolutely loved Lars Von Trier’s last film, Anti-Christ. Initially, I was tickled pink to learn of Melancholia, his follow-up, and expected to see it ASAP. Things don’t always work out the way you plan. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a recurring theme in Von Trier’s work.
There are no films that compare to Melancholia. The closest I can come up with is Rachel Getting Married, if only because it’s fresh in my mind. Imagine that film if it featured a rogue planet on a destruction course with Earth. That the Earth is destroyed is no spoiler and Von Trier didn’t intend it to be: it happens at the beginning of the film so the more casual moviegoer won’t be expecting a Hollywood ending. Although the classical music and the imagery in this sequence begged comparison to Kubrick’s 2001, to call this science fiction is both an insult to the film and science fiction itself. The idea that a planet such as Melancholia exists is actually a “serious” subject of conspiracy theory websites. I repeat: this is not a high-brow science fiction film, nor does it want to be. I for one refuse to accept such a preposterous gimmick as SF.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t matter what happens, but why it happens and, more importantly, what you can do with it once it happens. Doctor Who fans will appreciate this example: so there’s this ridiculously designed box that traps radiation inside it and the only way to get someone out of it is if someone else exchanges places with him or her. Yeah, it’s dumb, but the resulting drama can totally make up for it. That’s the case with Melancholia, even if the gimmick is derived from an old Father Sarducci joke.
Which is not to say Melancholia is sensational, at least not in the way you’d expect from an end-of-the-world movie. The most impressive shots of the movie are contained in the overture, the three or four minutes before the title card is ever seen. Von Trier plays with the same ultra-high speed cameras he employed at the beginning of Anti-Christ, giving us a taste of the imagery and motifs to come. Then the film switches to gritty hand-held photography and focuses on Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who is struggling to deal with a selfish family on the day of her wedding. It seems like the entire world is out to get Justine, like thinly drawn characters from a bad comedy. It’s hard to believe that nearly everyone in this family can be, as one character puts it, so stark-raving mad, but Trier exaggerates this sequence to show us know how the terminally depressed actually feel.
Here it is, the day of her wedding and it’s the kind of reception too grandiose for most people to even dream of. Despite her countless blessings, Justine simply can’t be happy. She’s wearing a smile, most of the time, and giving it a good try. Yet it just isn’t working for reasons that can’t be attributed to anything other than faulty biochemistry. So you can understand her frustration when John, her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), comes to her and threatens, “You better be goddamn happy.” It’s a terrible thing to say, but he did spend a fortune on the wedding and is probably sick of Justine’s wish-washy ways. You understand how he feels, too—people like Justine have a knack for taking a toll on others.
Justine’s sister may have seemed like a snotty little bitch during the wedding, but we later get an indication of just how far Justine has pushed her. Depression isn’t fair for the people who experience it, but it can be just as unfair for friends and family. When people on either side of the equation are forced to deal with something that has no easy fix, sparks will fly. Part two of the film focuses on this sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Claire turns out to be a pretty normal person who loves her sister, warts and all. The problem is she’s a lot more stable and caring from her own point of view than from Justine’s. I think this half of the film is probably closer to the reality of the situation.
The tables turn again, however, when the impending doom becomes certain: it’s Claire who becomes unhinged while Justine looks on unmoved.
I find it hard to review a film like this. Like I said, nothing compares to it and sometimes it’s hard to even think of it as a film. The reason I didn’t watch it sooner is simple: I wasn’t prepared. Anti-Christ took a lot out of me. It affected me in a way few movies are capable of, which is why I cherished it so much while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length. While I was excited to see this film, I also dreaded it.
Although it’s no one’s fault but my own, I was expecting a more powerful film. I was rarely moved during Melancholia, which isn’t to say I didn’t like it, but even the climax failed to get a rise out of me. On the other hand, maybe that wasn’t the point.