Lars Von Tier is an extremely talented filmmaker who has as of late suffered from some really bad PR. Von Trier has a Kanye-like ability to make expertly crafted and deeply personal works of art, only to have them completely overshadowed by some less than savory behavior at award shows that is subsequently blown completely out of proportion by the media. This pattern of conduct goes back to the early 90s, when the director stormed out of the Cannes closing ceremony while giving the judges a one fingered salute after his film Europa lost the Palm D’or to the Coen Brother’s Barton Fink. That caused a stir, but it was nothing compared to the stink he caused at the 2011 festival after he gave a strange rambling speech involving Nazis which was clearly meant in jest for which he apologized but was still thrown out of the festival and declared “persona non grata.” This had everyone talking, but amidst all the debates all I really wanted to hear about was the actual movie he was there to promote, Melencholia, which actually got very good reviews from the people more interested in cinema than mea culpas.
The film begins with the end of the world. We see some cryptic (and rather beautiful) slow motion images of chaos involving the film’s characters followed by a shot of a large blue planet literally crashing into the earth and shattering it into a million pieces. After that the film proper begins (presumably at an earlier point in time). The film is actually broken into two very distinct parts that are clearly labeled with title cards. The first part, “Justine,” is set over the course of a reception for the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and in many ways functions as an introduction to various characters like Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Most importantly we learn from all this that Justine is clinically depressed and at times is not able to function, and this distresses her even on her wedding day. That is largely set-up for the second half labeled “Claire,” where we learn that while all this was going on the earth was under threat from a “rogue planet” which has emerged from behind the sun and might be on a collision course for earth, something which was obviously hinted at in the film’s intro but which was not really discussed by any of the characters. Over the course of the second half we see how the characters that remain after the wedding react to this news as the threat becomes more and more palpable.
Melencholia is in many ways a companion piece to Von Trier’s 2009 film Anitchrist, which was another film that found its many virtues overlooked because of its director’s behavior at film festivals. Like that film Melencholia opens with a highly stylistic prologue before adopting a more down to earth handheld style for much of its running time. Also like Antichrist this film deals with clinical psychological scars in a highly impressionistic way that employs genre tropes in a very eccentric way. In this case those tropes are from the world Science Fiction and Disaster films rather than Horror and consequently the film lacks the extreme violence that many people found off putting in Antichrist. The parallels between the two films become even more pronounced in the film’s second half which, like Antichrist, is in a very isolated location and has a very small cast of characters that would seem to represent large swaths of humanity.
Let’s imagine the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich version of this story. The first thing that would happen once this rogue planet was discovered is that the government would do everything in their power to cover it up or spin it to be a good thing that won’t hurt us. This sensibility is represented by the character of John, a very controlling man who tries to keep knowledge about the planet from his wife and child “for their own good.” Meanwhile Claire represents the average person and their reaction to the impending disaster, and as you’d suspect if freaks her out. She doesn’t riot over it or anything, but it does shake her and make her worry about her child, who she has no power to protect. Most importantly Justine reacts to this crisis very differently; she sees this looming apocalypse almost as a relief. Von Trier has stated that the idea for the film came to him when a therapist told him that depressed people react to stressful situations differently from healthy people, and this is where that comes into play, the film is basically a highly impressionistic portrait of what depression is like under stressful situations.
We also need to consider just how literally this whole apocalyptic plotline is supposed to be taken. It’s possible that the planet of melancholia is simply a manifestation of Justine’s depression as if comes closer and closer to swallowing up both her and her family. This would explain why the planet doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind in the first half and why the characters seem to be completely closed off to the rest of the world in the second half. Perhaps the first half was meant to be the end of Justine’s place in the social world and the second half represents her isolated descent further into her own personal apocalypse. This wouldn’t fully explain how the events continue to directly affect John, Claire, and their child, but it is an interesting take to ponder.
Melancholia is pretty much everything that I would have expected from a follow up to Antichrist, and while I don’t think it is quite on the level of that earlier film I do think this will be much more palatable to a (slightly) wider audience and this doesn’t feel like any kind of a sellout either. I feel like with these two film Lars Von Trier is at the height of his filmmaking process for the first time in his career. I was never really wild about his earlier work but I find these two films completely fascinating both thematically and in execution.
**** out of four