Lars Von Trier is unlike any other director. Every time I watch his films for the first time (for my sanity, usually the only time), I become a potential victim of an impending disaster. An example- watching another planet hurtling towards Earth, waiting for the apocalyptic crash that pulverizes every atom of faith or optimism. With Von Trier having recently been declared persona non grata at Cannes, my desire to see his latest experiment in dystopia is greatly emboldened.
Two years ago, I saw Von Trier’s previous film Antichrist, in theaters. There were about forty people who had no idea what they were getting themselves into when the film started and fewer than twenty PTSD victims remained when the film ended. This has since become my most recommended film of the last two years as a fantastically enigmatic justification for misogyny. I had seen other Von Trier films to this point with mixed results, with only Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark standing out. But after the raw elemental brilliance of Antichrist, Von Trier became filmmaker mucho grata in my playlist.
Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst (The Virgin Suicides) as Justine, a successful marketing executive who becomes depressed just after marrying Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood). The beginning sequence of unsettling visual poetry is reminiscent of Cocteau’s Orpheus, a highlight reel of future events told using only Wagner’s opening to Tristan and Isolde as a harmoniously dissonant foil to the potential chaos befalling Justine, her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who played She in Antichrist), and Claire’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Most notable is the syzygy of these three- with Justine under Melancholia, Leo with the Moon, and Claire with the Sun.
After the surrealistic prologue we join the reception, where Justine’s alignment with Melancholia is further realized as she becomes depressed. As suggested by the title, depression is a huge theme in this film, and the steps taken as they reconcile with their despair becomes the major conflict wrought between the characters. Justine seems to be ahead of the curve regarding this notion of a path one must follow through the melancholy. Because, as you may guess, things do begin to unravel, for everyone, even Claire’s optimistic husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) eventually falters.
Justine’s whimsy on what should be the happiest day of her life is flanked by her goofy father (John Hurt) and her peace freak mother (Charlotte Rampling), whose bitterness and obvious disgust for her ex-husband drives a wedge between them all. Justine keeps seeking solitude amongst this and everything else, finding solace by gazing at the stars, knowing something is coming. After despair and helplessness comes resignation, this is where Justine finds herself just as Claire enters into despair, still a verse behind.
Following the reception we stay at this gorgeous castle where Claire and John are taking care of a hapless Justine. John is eagerly awaiting Melancholia, which is supposed to pass by Earth harmlessly yet gloriously. Claire’s increasing fear becomes inversely proportional to Justine’s apathy. This is further edified later by Justine’s rejection to Claire’s pleas, echoing the rejection Justine felt earlier from her mother’s dismissal towards her when she felt the melancholy coming on. I guess we all become our parents in some way.
Watching this film was like defusing a bomb attached to your reason. If you cut the wrong wire, the surreal will envelope you. Don’t become sad and fear not. Von Trier has made a very effective film that I will watch again, knowing that I will find more planets lurking behind the stars (minus the bloody handjobs found in other films of his). Things do come together; the people and their overlapping mood cycles run their course. The resignation from before morphs into a tired serenity, as if they are ready to let the melancholia envelope them. Is that the lesson? That would suggest redemption, something sparsely found in a Von Trier film. How about a fantastic justification for popping Zoloft?