Denmark. Directed by Lars von Trier, 2011. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland. 136 minutes.
We have a wedding to attend. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) are holding them a reception at their estate–an estate so large it comes with its own 18-hole golf course.
In time, it becomes clear that Justine is miserable. She pretends to enjoy herself, but she doesn’t want to be here at all. So she keeps sneaking off to take a bath, or a nap, or bond with her nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr). Meanwhile, her father (John Hurt) is drunk, her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is disinterested, her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) won’t stop hounding her for a tag line for his latest print campaign, and the wedding planner (Udo Kier) hates her.
Meanwhile, a rogue planet has appeared from…somewhere…and is on a journey through our solar system. Soon it will “fly by” our planet. The experts assure us that it will pass the Earth harmlessly, and that there is no chance of a collision between the two celestial bodies.
We’re all safe. Perfectly safe.
If the Nightmare Gallery had a patron saint, it would be Lars von Trier.
Having seen two of his films (the other being Antichrist) plus both series of The Kingdom, I can say with absolute certainty that the man represents the values we here at the Gallery hold dear. His films do not challenge the audience, they double-dog-dare it. He has spent much of his career pissing off viewers, critics, the film-making establishment, much of the entertainment media, and most Western nations. He co-authored the Dogme ’95 rules and then broke several of them in making his Dogme film. He founded a porn studio to finance his “mainstream” films. He cast Björk in her first and only film role. If the phrases enfant terrible and provocateur didn’t exist in French, we would need to coin them, to describe Lars von Trier. This is not a guy who fucks around.
To prove my thesis, I humbly submit Melancholia’s prologue. It’s fifteen minutes of planets and stars moving in slow motion, interspersed with shots of Dunst, Gainsbourg and their castmates running in slow motion. And when I say “slow motion,” I mean very slow motion. Like, you can barely tell they’re moving. There’s no dialogue to go along with this, only opera.
Those who hope von Trier is finished testing their patience once the story actually starts will find those hopes not just dashed, but flamboyantly slaughtered like a Game of Thrones character. The first section of the movie details the debacle that is the reception; the second section picks up a few days later, and observes how Justine and Claire (and to a lesser extent, John and Leo) respond to the catastrophe they fear is coming.
Von Trier doesn’t present the rest of the film in slow motion but sometimes it feels like he does. Anyone who’s ever been part of a family will recognize these situtations, and the film stretches them to the point of snapping. Most of the guest in attendance are unpleasant to some degree or another, and we get to spend a lot of time with them.
But that unpleasantness doesn’t manifest only through the characters. It’s woven into the fabric of its lead character. Justine’s depression isn’t necessarily a function of her asshole parents, or her asshole boss, or her asshole brother-in-law. In the film’s second half, after the wedding is over, Claire freaks out about the fly-by while John assures her that we’re not all going to die. This is when Justine lays out her philosophy towards life: “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it. Life on Earth is evil.” Furthermore, she claims to know there is no life elsewhere in the universe: “I know we’re alone. Life is only on Earth. And not for long.” A regular rainbow of love and happiness, she is.
Von Trier isn’t just positing atheism here. I’m not sure he’s even positing nihilism. Rust Cohle, the character played by Matthew McConaughey on True Detective and the current pop-cultural archetype for the modern nihilist, at least believes in the possibility of doing good, and of actions having good ends. Von Trier, through Justine, expresses cosmic pessimism.
In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti writes, “Strictly considered…our only natural birthright is a right to die.” If Justine were real, I’d send her a copy of that book for her birthday. I get the feeling she’d get a lot out of it.
And, yet, Melancholia is an intensely moving film. One of the things that struck me about Antichrist is how von Trier seemed to be the star, not either of the lead actors, and it seems even moreso here. The locations, camera work and editing make the setting feel like a construct of the subconscious, not an actual place. Justine and Claire may not be authorial stand-ins or Mary Sues, but they still feel like reflections of something that is personally experienced or felt. It’s like von Trier cracked his psyche open to see what was inside.
And while the film is undoubtedly set in a dark place, we recognize it as a very human place. A place that exists inside every one of us, even if many of us prefer to pretend that it simply isn’t there.
The superb ensemble cast, a series of performances so uniformly strong I can’t bring myself to single out one or the other (besides that Udo Kier is awesome as always) brings the world to life. There’s a lot of bravery on display here, on both sides of the camera.
Like its difficult and polarizing auteur, Melancholia requires a lot of patience and isn’t going to be for everybody. But those viewers who are attuned to it will find it an extraordinary experience–testament to the power of cinematic art.