Lars Von Trier is a provocative filmmaker, who has no qualms about making people uneasy with what he shows on the big screen. Antichrist was arguably the darkest picture of his career, a bleak, incoherent and infuriating reflection of his own clinical depression.
It is fitting, then, that depression is the prime subject matter of Trier’s latest picture Melancholia, an apocalyptic film that goes against its own conventions by celebrating the end of all human life, not leaving viewers with any semblance of hope for the future. This becomes immediately clear when viewers witness the film’s astounding seven-minute-long dialogue-less prologue, which consists of nothing but mesmerizing, surreal images of the Earth’s destruction via collision with the titular planet Melancholia — set to the strains of Wagner.
By presenting such a brilliant sequence from the outset and rendering the apocalypse as visually poetic, Trier removes any possibility of his characters surviving and transforms a traditionally tragic turn of events into a desirable outcome of awe and beauty.
Though the selection of music and imagery in the opening might give the impression of an epic disaster flick on the scale of 2012, what follows is an intimate character study in two parts that shows the days leading up to Earth’s destruction, with the first focusing on Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the second on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Trier carefully and artfully limits the film’s scope, never leaving the beautiful estate that ultimately becomes the main characters’ inescapable prison and rarely wandering outside either Claire or Justine’s points of view. Melancholia is remarkably short on exposition and there is little indication of how the wider world reacts to the existence and threat of Melancholia. Gradually, it becomes clear Trier’s film is not so much about the apocalypse as it is about examining how human behavior changes when the pressures of society cease to exist.
Part 1, which depicts Justine’s luxurious wedding reception in the style of a home video with jerky hand-held cinematography, comes off as a cross between a drama and a quirky, black comedy. Key to the excellent humor here is John (Kiefer Sutherland), Claire’s rich husband, who is constantly at odds with her unorthodox family, especially his cantankerous mother-in-law Gaby (Charlotte Rampling). Part 1 also establishes Justine as an unraveling sociopath incapable of acting within society in juxtaposition to her sister, a successful conformist and control freak.
Conversely, Part 2 transforms Melancholia into a psychological horror film, depicting Claire’s gradual psychological breakdown in tandem with Justine’s recovery from depression as a means of reflecting the collapse of society in reaction to the eschaton. The humor gives way to tension and suspense, with some of the most nerve-wracking moments involving Claire using a tiny device to see whether the other planet is either approaching or receding from Earth. A simple and brilliant relation between two shots of the planet through the device tells the audience all it needs to know, in effect translating Claire’s sense of utter terror to the viewer.
Dunst and Gainsbourg give convincing performances and imbue their archetypal characters with actual depth, though Gainsbourg inarguably renders her character the more sympathetic of the two. Nonetheless, Trier supports Dunst’s pessimistic and nihilistic worldviews, a fact that becomes clear in the picture’s riveting final scenes, which take the audience back to the beginning in which it implores a welcome embrace with the world’s end.
In terms of visual splendor, Trier never manages to top the opening’s depiction of planetary destruction, but both parts contain their fair share of fantastic imagery, such as the two sisters horseback riding through misty castle grounds, small air balloons glowing in the dark or Dunst bathing in the beautiful luminescence of Melancholia.
The film ultimately emerges as a genuine success for Trier and one of the most riveting films of 2011, while simultaneously creating an absorbing character study and a unique rendition of the apocalypse. Whereas most apocalyptic films exhibit uplifting messages, promising life will somehow resume after the world ends, Melancholia argues the end is inevitable, and there is nothing one can do but accept and welcome what comes.
It’s a provocative stance that many might not agree with, but Trier makes a laudable and convincing case for it.