Posts Tagged ‘Melancholia’

Well now, the sun is shining and the UK is basking in wholly unseasonable good weather. The scent of barbecues drifts gently on the afternoon breeze and the sound of young people at play floats up to the window of my attic. All is well with the world. In these circumstances, what could make more sense than to talk about the futility of existence and the destruction of all life as we know it, both things which feature strongly as elements of Lars von Trier’s latest offering, (wait for it) Melancholia.

Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a young PR woman who’s just getting married to a man who’s clearly devoted to her. They arrive for their wedding reception at a golfing hotel owned by her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), which is where nearly all the movie takes place. Numerous friends of Justine are present, along with members of her family, and an ostentatiously dysfunctional bunch they are too.

As the evening goes on it becomes clear that not all is well with Justine: she seems to be struggling, merely going through the motions and not as happy as she affects to be. Amongst other things, she keeps sneaking off to secluded parts of the golf course to do things that would outrage the greenkeepers if they found out about them. She develops a strange fixation with the sky, and an odd sensitivity to something anomalous happening to the constellation Scorpio.

Some time later, we find that Justine is in a state of near-catatonic depression and being cared for by her sister and brother-in-law. The wider world is anticipating a more significant event: the approach from deep space of a new planet, Melancholia, which is due to pass close to Earth in only a few days time. The coming of the new world has different effects on the two sisters: Claire becomes increasingly nervous, while Justine seems to make a recovery. Claire’s husband assures her not to worry – there is no danger of the two planets colliding.

He is of course wrong, and the audience is fully aware of this from the start. The most striking and memorable sequence in Melancholia is at the very beginning, when apocalyptic tableaux depicting heaven and earth in chaos and concluding with the annihilation of the planet unfold, all to the strains of Wagner on the soundtrack (the relevance of von Trier’s choice of music, given the ongoing is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-Nazi-sympathiser debate, I leave to others to decide). We know how this is all going to end even as it begins.

So, you may be wondering, what’s the point of it all? A very reasonable question, and I think to some extent this movie reviews itself – the plot is about the extinction of life as we know it, the theme is the effects of depression, and the name of the thing is Melancholia – what do you think it’s like to watch?

However, that said, there is much interesting stuff going on here. All the stuff about the dysfunctional family and co-workers in the first half does feel a bit stagey and contrived but it does at least partially explain Justine’s depression, which for a long while was what I thought this film was about. Her slide into ill-health begins as the first signs of Melancholia’s approach become apparent (even the name of the planet is a bit of a giveaway) – you could even interpret this as the planet being her illness made manifest, drawn down out of the depths of space. Certainly her reaction to Melancholia’s approach seems one almost of rapture rather than disquiet: one striking scene has Claire discovering Justine basking in the light it gives off.

And yet the second half of the film is Claire’s story as much as Justine’s, and Claire’s response to the looming cosmic encounter is much more straightforward. It’s the difference that is crucial here, I suppose – calm acceptance as opposed to nervous agitation. Certainly the film strongly suggests that the more rational your mind, the less well-equipped you are to cope with extraordinary circumstances like these.

This is a hard film to categorise – the very vague plot similarities with the likes of Armageddon and Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre have led some to go down the route of ‘hmm, SF and psychology – must be a bit like Solaris, then’. This seems fairly fatuous to me as the level of accuracy in the celestial mechanics is about what you’d expect from an episode of Space: 1999. A much better comparison, to my mind, would be with Black Swan – both are to some extent about mental health issues, both feature striking performances from actresses best known for much more mainstream fare, and both toy with genre material for their own ends (though I should point out that Melancholia features considerably less ballet dancing and girl-on-girl action).

Kirsten Dunst is extremely good in what must have been a fairly challenging role, but Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally accomplished in a less showy part. Von Trier has managed to attract an extremely strong cast – John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Jesper Christensen – who do the best they can with some faintly melodramatic material. This does add to a faint sense of artifice throughout – von Trier isn’t afraid to repeatedly remind you that you’re watching a movie – but given this is established from practically the first moment it’s not really a problem.

But it does feel like it goes on forever without a great deal of importance actually happening for long stretches at a time, and given the Big Themes that are not terribly subtly woven into the story, I was hoping that in the end the film would have something more significant to say than actually appears to be the case. It’s a stunning-looking movie with some very strong performances in it, and it may well be that with Melancholia Lars von Trier has made another profound and very important cinematic statement. But if he has, I have absolutely no idea what it is.

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