(Dir. Lars von Trier) (2011)
Some compare this film to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Here’s my comparison – one of these films is overrated tedious pretentious twaddle and the other is a stylish wonder directed by Lars von Trier.
In Part 1 of the Trier one, Melancholia, a handsome couple, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive at their wedding reception in a weird Maxfield Parrish twilight. Everything is beautiful in the castle guesthouse, but the newlyweds are two hours late and a whiff of despair accompanies them. We don’t know why. The bride’s sister Claire (a careworn Charlotte Gainsbourg) is exasperated but not surprised. Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is beyond exasperated and wants to be sure that Justine knows how much this wedding is costing him; Claire and John own and operate the guesthouse. The bride is alternately smiling delightedly and morosely detached. We learn that she has promised Claire that she will not make a scene on this night. Justine suffers from melancholia, in the medical sense of a deep and persistent soul-eating misery. The night does not go well. Justine’s rakish father (a spoon-stealing John Hurt) stolidly avoids the heart-to-heart his daughter wants. Her mother (a sour Charlotte Rampling) loudly deplores marriage and tells Justine to get out while she can. Kind, unsuspecting Michael is way out of his depth. Justine’s ghastly boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and his newly-employed nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) – well, the less said the better. In short, the marriage doesn’t take. Justine sleepwalks, alienates and insults her way right out of it, just as mummy suggested. It’s a night that everyone will remember – for the rest of their lives.
Some time later Justine, now virtually catatonic, goes to stay with Claire, John and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) in the same guest house – although there are no guests. The red star Arcturus, which Justine noted on her wedding night, (one such sighting heart-swellingly coinciding with a crescendo in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde“) has disappeared behind a planet called Melancholia, which in its turn has been “hiding” behind the sun and is now approaching the Earth. Scientists are divided – Melancholia will fly by the Earth or it will collide with it. One or the other. But that “hiding” suggests motive and malice. We know from the wonderful opening sequence of slow-motion shots of birds falling, lightning, Justine dragging grey muddy snares and planets colliding, that this will be no fly-by. We later recognise these Peter Greenaway-like moments of surreal heaviness and profundity as perhaps the experience of those who inhabit the infinitesimal and eternal, liminal space of the final moments when the laws of physics of this planet are blown to pieces.
The three adults and Leo are strangely isolated – no phones ring, there is no television or radio, the internet is rarely used, no helicopters fly over, no ravening hordes of final-dayers or doomsday preppers climb over the fence. When Justine twice tries to ride her horse across the bridge to the village he baulks and will not cross, nor can Claire cross in the golf buggy. We are told that a character whom we know to be dead has “gone into the village”. Where is this mansion on a bay with an eighteen (sometimes nineteen) hole golf-course and formal garden? Some of the characters have English accents, some American, some Scandanavian. But it’s the end of days. We are nowhere.
John, all bluff optimism, reassures Claire that they are in no danger. Justine, reminiscent of another enigmatic, doomed, blonde beauty, Miranda, “knows things”. Like the girls on Hanging Rock – Claire, Leo and Justine spend much of their time sleeping. John watches the skies with his telescope. Melancholia approaches and recedes. Then approaches. “There’s your fly-by” Justine says nastily. Justine is a nihilist, certain that life is “evil”, “‘life is only on earth and not for long”. She awaits the end with a cold, bitter fury. The last scene – one of the best movie endings of all time – emblematises her incandescent rage, in all its tragic glory.
Certainly Melancholia is not flawless – Trier’s symbolism is not subtle (yes, lily of the valley is creepy); the wedding scene is too long; why is John paying for the wedding?; Kirsten takes her clothes off a bit too much; the “surprise” death of a major character is not plausible and is flagged with blinking neon lights; we wonder how Justine could ever have succeeded in advertising; Leo is there simply to provide “a child” for the end of the world scenario – he’s curiously characterless and listless. Critics witter on about whether the two parts of the film (Justine / Claire) represent imagination/reality, or capitalism/religion v science, or internal destruction/external obliteration, or male reason/female feeling, or the fruitlessness of human activity/the magnificent indifference of the cosmos, and I too could witter on about these things. But to get bogged down in these grey muddy snares is to try to make the film more than it is, or needs to be.
MINORITY REPORT[P reluctantly agreed to watch this again, although he is not disposed to change his views about consigning it to his list of Anaesthesia. That wedding scene is deadly – it’s as long as The Deer Hunter and serves less of an expository purpose. What’s the right ‘tag-line’ for this film? How about…er, Bright Young Things Waddle through Pretentious Twaddle? No, let’s be grown up about this. How about: Hold Your Wang before the Cosmic Prang?] [Note: See a hilarious critique in the form of a “script” by Chris W of theeditingroom.com here (spoiler warning).]