Melancholia – review
Lars von Trier’s would-be apocalyptic take on the end of the world is a narcissistic and humourless exercise
The Observer, Sunday 2 October 2011
The end is nigh: (l-r) Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia.
Woody Allen once said: “If I had to live my life again I’d do everything the same, except that I wouldn’t see The Magus.” By the same token, if I was told that the end of the world was nigh, I wouldn’t waste my time seeingMelancholia, Lars von Trier‘s celebration of the imminent extinction of planet Earth. I’d do something more pleasurable like taking an axe to a cigarette machine and smoking my first fag for 40 years, an activity I still associate with movie-going.
However, I did nearly end my own life last Tuesday by the exertion entailed in walking from the eastern side of Covent Garden to the western end of Soho in 10 minutes, due to the distributors’ bad planning of the press viewings. Breathing what seemed like my last, I slumped down a couple of minutes into the apocalyptic prologue of Melancholia. Fortunately I’d read that this highly stylised pre-credit sequence introduced the principal characters and presented a collision between the wandering planet Melancholia and our own, resulting in a one-nil victory for the visitors. A younger critic kindly stayed behind to describe in some detail what I might have missed, even telling me that there was a reference he knew I’d have noticed to Last Year at Marienbad.
What then followed was two chapters named “Justine” and “Claire” after the sisters at its centre, who view each other with mutual loathing. Like most of von Trier’s films since he burst on the international scene at the 1984 Cannes festival with The Element of Crime, Melancholia is in English rather than his native Danish, though it doesn’t seem remotely like a British or American picture, despite the appearance of familiar English-speaking actors among the assorted Scandinavians.
Moreover, like his oeuvre as a whole, it is, to quote the most famous, most melancholy of Danes, “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Indeed like Hamlet, von Trier is a depressed, attention-seeking malcontent, forever insulting and playing malevolent games with those around him and inventing dramas such as Hamlet’s “The Mousetrap”, designed to disturb and expose the audience and leave it in a state of disarray.
The film is set in an unnamed country at a remote chateau where Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband arrive two hours late for their elegant wedding reception, hosted by sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich, tight-fisted husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).
This blighted event, where everyone is at each other’s throats, backbiting and bloodletting, is clearly reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’sFesten, the most celebrated of movies to come out of the much publicised Dogme movement that von Trier launched in the 1990s and imposed upon his Danish contemporaries. There are also echoes of Elsinore, of Marienbad, of a Sadean orgy (through the name Justine), and of the wedding reception in The Philadelphia Story (Justine’s father, played by John Hurt, is called Dexter after CK Dexter Haven, the charming philanderer impersonated by Cary Grant in George Cukor’s film).
In an amusing and diverting way, the wilful, depressed Justine behaves appallingly, leaving and rejoining the party as she pleases. She urinates on a green on the surrounding golf course, has sex with a young stranger in a bunker, insults the best man (Stellan Skarsgård) who is both her new father-in-law and her employer at an advertising agency. But the carefully orchestrated festivities continue unabashed. Like the partygoers in Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the wedding guests refuse to acknowledge the impending catastrophe. Meanwhile, the soaring romantic strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isoldeon the soundtrack direct us to Eliot’s The Waste Land and to thoughts of luxuriant death.
The film’s second half is much more like a conventional disaster movie, both of the art-house (eg Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice) and Hollywood (eg Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach) variety. Now alone and isolated on the grand country estate, Claire, John, their young son, Leo, and Justine confront, affect to confront or merely witness the approaching Melancholia which from once being a distant speck is now emerging over the horizon like some beautiful leviathan.
Claire lays into suicide pills. The rational amateur astronomer John assures everyone that the danger will pass. Leo views the planet as another marvel of nature. Justine, however, emerging from her torpor to discover a new composure, seems to welcome the collision as bringing a fitting end to an evil, isolated, unnecessary world. At one eloquent point she rearranges a display of art books in the chateau’s library to give prominence to reproductions of Edward Burne-Jones’s Death of Opheliaand several Bruegel paintings, among them the chilly Hunters in the Snow.
There are a few striking images here, especially of the sisters out riding on fine horses, observed from a high angle through an early-morning mist. But the movie is heavy, though without weight or gravitas – a solipsistic, narcissistic, inhuman affair. And it is wholly devoid of humour, except perhaps for the meeting towards the end of Claire and Justine: the game is over and they’re at a golf hole bearing a flag apocalyptically marked “19”.
Superficially, Melancholia resembles Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in its apparent engagement with big spiritual issues and matters eschatological, but it lacks Malick’s emotional generosity.
Bride’s Mind Is on Another Planet
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: November 10, 2011
Bang or whimper? Ice or fire? Divine plan or cosmic accident? Alien invaders or genetically enhanced apes? The end of the world is painful to contemplate but also hard to resist thinking about, partly because there are so many wild and scary imaginative possibilities.
In “Melancholia,” an excursion from the sad to the sublime by way of the preposterous, the always controversial Danish director Lars von Trier offers his own, highly personal version of apocalypse: a celestial collision rendered in surprisingly lovely digital effects and accompanied by mighty blasts of Wagner. The film takes its title from a rogue planet that appears suddenly in the night sky and seems to be heading straight for Earth.
The word also, not coincidentally, names an emotional disorder described by Freud as “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.”
The expectation of punishment is, of course, one reason people go to a Lars von Trier movie in the first place. Suffering — predominantly, though not exclusively, the suffering of women — is both his favorite subject and his preferred method. He is a crafty sadist, but also, for all his tricks and provocations, a sincere one.
So “Melancholia” is emphatically not what anyone would call a feel-good movie, and yet it nonetheless leaves behind a glow of aesthetic satisfaction. Total obliteration happens on an intimate scale, and the all-encompassing, metaphysical nature of the drama leaves room for gentleness as well as operatic cruelty. The machinery of mass panic and media frenzy that juices up most films on this subject is notably absent. Instead, difficult emotions are registered in close-ups of individual human faces, and a perverse, persuasive idea rises to the surface. The end of the world as we know it might just turn out to be beautiful.
Freud’s diagnosis pretty much captures the mental state of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman whose history of crippling depression overshadows her lavish wedding party and threatens to blight her chances at future happiness. In the course of a long, hectic night she comes increasingly undone, to the bewilderment of her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and the exasperation of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Compared with the humorless, grimly responsible Claire, Justine is impulsive, self-indulgent and charming: the flighty grasshopper to her sister’s responsible, dutiful ant.
The arrival of Melancholia — the planet, that is — reverses the traditional moral of that fable. In the second half of the movie Justine’s fatalism will prove a more viable (or at least a more graceful) response to the prospect of global annihilation than Claire’s anxious practicality. During the wedding, though, the catastrophe, which has been foretold in a gorgeous, dreamlike overture, full of dark clouds and nightmarish images of doom, is not something the guests seem to be aware of. Rather, the imminence of an all-obliterating big bang is a piece of information the audience possesses in advance of the characters on screen, an open secret that makes their earnest, trivial doings all the more dreadful and absurd.
On its own, the spectacle of matrimony provides a rich, inexhaustible vein of comic and melodramatic potential — chance encounters, simmering grudges, sexual intrigue, dysfunctional outbursts — and Mr. von Trier is hardly the first filmmaker to use a wedding as a kind of controlled experiment in human waywardness. Robert Altman, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Demme might come to mind during the first hour of “Melancholia,” to say nothing of the houses of Windsor and Kardashian.
The setting is a grand estate on the edge of the water, complete with stables, a golf course and manicured expanses of lawn. English is the language, and dollars are the currency, but this is less a specific America (a place Mr. von Trier has never visited and the theoretical location of most of his recent films) than an abstract space of moneyed entitlement. The aggressive opulence of 21st-century capital coexists, somewhat awkwardly, with an older, aristocratic elegance. You might have seen some of the wedding guests last year at Marienbad, while others, more recently, might have sneered at you from their seats in the first-class cabin as you pushed your way back to coach. Claire’s pompous husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), owns the property, which seems to be both a high-end resort and his own private family retreat.
Unlike other von Trier victim-heroines — including those played by Emily Watson in“Breaking the Waves”; Nicole Kidman in “Dogville”; and Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark” — Justine is not assailed and humiliated by other people. The element of male aggression that was such a powerful force in those films, and an integral aspect of Mr. von Trier’s creative personality, has been neutralized here. The men who hover around the wedding, including the clueless Michael and the officious John, are not menacing, just useless.
Justine’s boss (and Michael’s best man) is an obnoxious advertising executive played by Stellan Skarsgard (Alexander’s father), who gives his prized employee a promotion and a deadline on what is supposed to be the happiest night of her life. Justine’s parents are the pathologically bitter Charlotte Rampling and the pathologically whimsical John Hurt, and the ensemble (also including Udo Kier as the imperious wedding planner, and Brady Corbet as a newly hired colleague of Justine’s) proceeds through the expected rituals. There are loud arguments, awkward toasts, bad sex, confrontations with the help and a few moments of serene and luminous bliss.
All of which, of course, amounts to nothing, since everything and everyone will be ashes soon enough. That is Justine’s state of mind, and Ms. Dunst is remarkably effective at conveying both the acute anguish and the paralyzing hollowness of depression. To the extent that the destructive potential of Melancholia is a metaphor for her private melancholia, it is perfectly apt. One of the chief torments of serious depression is how disproportionate and all-consuming the internal, personal sorrow can feel.
There is a grim vindication — and also an obvious, effective existential joke — in Justine’s discovery that her hyperbolic despair may turn out to be rooted in an accurate and objective assessment of the state of the universe. Mr. von Trier, inspired (if that’s the word) to make this movie by his own experience of depression, gleefully turns a psychological drama inside out. The world, Justine declares in her darkest moment of clarity, deserves its awful fate. The perverse achievement of “Melancholia” is how difficult it is to argue with her conclusion.
“Melancholia” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Profanity, nudity, hopelessness.