by Raj Ranade
Don’t let the movie star glamour and swooning operatic lyricism of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (playing at the Kentucky Theatre) fool you – at its heart, it’s not too far removed from the Midwestern grit and hard-bitten realism of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. These are both movies that explore how we might cope with the end of human existence – the only key thematic difference is that Nichols proposes the apocalypse as a tentative “if”, while von Trier prefers to think of it as a resounding “when”.
And he doesn’t waste any time getting to it either. In Melancholia‘s first eight minutes, Wagner blares on the soundtrack as von Trier presents a series of dazzling slow-mo cinematic tableaux that are a condensed, surrealized version of what is to follow, like a vision of bride (Kirsten Dunst) running through a forest where tree vines reach out to entangle her, a shot of electricity jetting from her fingertips, and at the end, a God’s-eye view of the ending to come where a massive planet crushes the earth into so much cosmic dust.
Invoking planetary disentegration is a fairly depressing way to start the proceedings, so it’s all the more surprising that the first half of Melancholia pairs plenty of warm humor with the expected gloom. The subject of this section is Dunst’s Justine, a clinically-depressed bride just married to a dim but handsome hunk (True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard). Things start well as she arrives as the lavish reception thrown for her by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland), but a vicious speech from Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a more accurate omen (“Enjoy it while it lasts,” she says of the marriage). As Dunst’s fake-cheer facade gives way to authentic gloom, things fall apart in excruciatingly/hilariously awkward sitcom style (Udo Kier is a standout as the fastidious wedding planner who, after seeing his plans ruined, refuses to even look at the bride). By the time the bouquet has been thrown, Justine has not only destroyed her marriage, but her job under an overbearing boss (Stellan Skarsgaard) and some of her closest family relationships.
Taken literally, a lot of things in this first half don’t make much sense (Why, for example, is there zero resemblance of any kind between these sisters?). But the emotions ring true. Von Trier has said that Melancholia (and his last film Antichrist) arose out of his own experience with depression, and the first half is brilliant as an allegorical depiction of that condition, where the world around sufferers expects nothing but happiness (who should be happier than a bride on her wedding day?) and is completely baffled by their inability to play the expected societal role.
The film gets more directly allegorical in the sci-fi-inflected second half, as the film’s protagonists start to see the prologue’s massive planet bearing down on them. This section focuses more on Claire, who is now caring for a Justine sunk into depression so deeply that she can barely bathe herself. But as the planet’s arrival nears, the sisters seem to switch places. Claire and her husband descend into panic and despair as they realize the imminent doom coming, while Justine develops an eerie sort of inner peace, even bathing nude at one point in the oncoming planet’s glow.
“The earth is evil,” says Justine. “We don’t need to grieve for it.” Anyone familiar with von Trier’s past movies (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark) might see this as another expression of all-consuming nihilism from the famously downbeat director. But it’s a mistake to judge this entirely based on von Trier’s previous work (or for that matter, the infamous comments that got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival this year – the only real relevance those thoughts have to anything is possibly that von Trier wanted to sabotage his own movie the way Justine sabotages her own wedding). Because for all the clear loathing that von Trier expresses towards most of the film’s haughty bourgeoisie, as Melancholia draws to a close, real human compassion sneaks into the picture. It helps that Dunst and Gainsbourg are incredibly good – the former, in particular, gives a career-best performance here as an enigmatic suffering soul who finds a new lease of life, however bizarre it may be.
Melancholia, in fact, ends in a place not too far from Take Shelter – Justine, despite her feelings about the Earth’s value, does her best to calm the panic of her loved ones, and the final shot features a family holding hands tightly as the unthinkable arrives. It’s glib to say that the ultimate message of both these movies is that “All you need is love”, but it’s also not too far from the truth. Both these movies suggest that in the face of insurmountable peril (whether the scale of the apocalypse is planet-sized or as relatively small as a person’s own death), the only thing to do is to hold on tight to the person next to you. Call that nihilism if you want – though I never would have expected it from this source, it seems to me more like honest-to-god tenderness.