Director: Lars von Trier
Synopsis: Two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) grapple with the imminent doom of Earth by way of planetary collision.
Overview: Loving a film like Melancholia isn’t unlike appreciating the literary artistry in a suicide note. It somehow feels inappropriate, almost vulgar to have such a passionate reaction to such an ostensibly grim work of art. But it feels just as wrong to deny how much I adore this film. Unlike a lot of von Trier’s work, Melancholia isn’t built to be off-putting — in fact, it’s quite romantic in its depiction of Earth’s final days. There’s very little irony in how it presents that narrative; the film wants you to acknowledge that there is beauty in oblivion. That’s a pretty bleak notion, yes, but von Trier has always been a filmmaker who finds aesthetic pleasure where others see only despair and darkness.
Melancholia begins by telling us that the Earth will be destroyed. In a ten-minute overture, scored to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, von Trier depicts its demise, but in an overtly romantic way. A montage of tableaus show the planet’s final moments, with a focus on the yet-to-be introduced main characters of the film. It’s an undeniably gorgeous sequence, and the tableaus set up the audience’s relationship with the characters in an important way. They are frozen in time, framed as though they’re in an art installation, and their juxtaposition with shots of the ever-encroaching killer planet of the title makes them seem more representative of all of humanity than entities unto themselves. By proceeding to spend the ensuing 120 minutes diving deeply into their lives, Melancholia makes us wonder why it’s easier to empathize with the concept of “people” as a whole than with actual individual people. The overture has no trouble getting us to feel for impressions of humans, but once the film proper begins we fall back into the familiar film-audience patter where we must be convinced to care for the characters. When Justine (Kirsten Dunst) says that, “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it,” later in the film, we’re forced to consider that she might be right.
Melancholia is also one of cinema’s best depictions of both depression and anxiety. Having suffered from both myself, I was so pleased to see a film accurately explore their impact in an empathetic way. Too many works of fiction present depression as merely an extreme sadness and anxiety as a manic neuroticism. Melancholia has a much more realistic approach, one surely informed by von Trier’s own struggles with depression. The film presents the two as mirrored ailments — depression prevents you from feeling anything, and anxiety forces you to feel everything. For the first half of the film, we focus on Justine’s wedding and her inability to feel the “right” feelings. It’s not until her half is over that Melancholia is even introduced, but the fact that we know it’s coming makes it all the more potent. The approach of Melancholia serves as a hypothetical crisis situation, a prompt for the film’s exploration of the twin mental illnesses. Justine takes the knowledge of the coming apocalypse in stride, perhaps because her outlook was already so dire. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) panics, overwhelmed by the events and forced to process a litany of emotions in a very brief span of time. The film’s second half, the one dealing with Melancholia directly, is devoted to Claire. Her anxiety is never as explicitly detailed as Justine’s depression, but the film is plainly about how her reaction to Melancholia contrasts with Justine’s.
Von Trier uses large-scale stakes to avoid alienation. A traditional drama about this sort of topic would have a narrative specific to one person, or at least two people who have these disorders. Melancholia’s narrative concerns the entire human race, so it’s impossible not to connect with Justine and Claire’s predicament. You can’t help but be moved by this film. People who are only aware of von Trier’s reputation for provocation might be surprised to see him produce such a lush, expressionistic symphony of sadness. If you’re one of those people, I can’t recommend Melancholia highly enough.