Welcome to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, where the end of the world never looked so pretentious.
Von Trier, that Dane of the Dismal, delivers another art house exercise in glossy banality that’s much less profound then it thinks it is. His last, Anti-Christ, had Charlotte Gainsbourg committing genital mutilation on herself and Willem Dafoe in the forest, whilst a talking fox informed us ‘Chaos Reigns!’ In Melancholia, Gainsbourg returns to spy on a naked Dunst, sprawled out like a desecrated version of Michelangelo’s David, basking in the unnatural light of a rogue planet hurtling its way towards Earth. This time, like the last, it’s not chaos that reigns, but boredom and frustration.
Give the director credit for this; he’s nearly dismantled his own theory of filmmaking, proving he’s as shallow and slick as your average Hollywood popcorn monger. Melancholia may not follow typical patterns of narrative or deliver easily telegraphed set pieces, but in its structure, intent and general garish self-promotion it’s only one side of the coin away from Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Lars targets the most obvious pop culture symbols and images, and delivers his treatise on depression through a cheap, half-baked science fiction set-up, that much like Armageddon, must end with the fate of the world in the balance and hammy faux pronouncements of familial bonding. The only thing Lars lacks is an Aerosmith ballad to run over the credits.
Plenty of capital-A art here, but nothing nourishing for the senses. There are three distinct sections to the film, including a visually alluring opening overture that summarizes the theme, a narrative act following Kirsten Dunst’s Justine on her wedding night, and a final act sometime later that chronicles Justine’s descent into depression, and the efforts of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) to rouse her from it as the suspicious orb Melancholia slowly creeps towards Earth with astronomers everywhere watching it intently.
Those tantalizingly bizarre images from the trailer appear in the opening, wordlessly summing up in five minutes what the rest of the film will restlessly explore for another two hours. Everything on Earth is destroyed when the Jupiter-sized Melancholia collides with our planet. In the glorious slo-mo death throes of the earth, von Trier visually pairs the classically inclined musical interlude ‘Tristan and Isolde’ with imagery that reminds of a Vanity Fair photo-spread meets medieval triptych.
Kirsten Dunst is the hazy-eyed object of reverence at the center of this arcane snow-globe—all around her birds fall lazily from the sky and land in piles, while Charlotte Gainsbourg runs with her child through air that seems thick with invisible molasses. Even the topiary have staged a revolution, and tug and tear with the same ill intent as that randy tree in The Evil Dead. When the glam starts to dry up, it is replaced with dowdy comic-book flourishes; twirling tendrils of lightning dance from Dunst’s fingers as if she’s some kind of electric mime. Whereas Anti-Christ spread its surreal and schlocky visions throughout the film, Melancholia at least has the decency to put all its most provoking images right at the beginning, allowing any fans of visual decadence to get their fix and then shuffle out in plenty of time to catch Tarsem Singh’s Immortals.
What we are left with then is a two-part chamber piece about sad, selfish, internally miserable people moping about a vast country estate and waiting for the sky to fall on their heads. In actuality, it’s only the second half that even acknowledges the cataclysm directly; the first is a wedding celebration where the collision of family drama foreshadows the cosmic confrontation on its way.
At any rate, the first portion comes off best because it has been frontloaded with a familiar cast acting out well known cinematic tropes from the likes of Rules of the Game and The Exterminating Angel, glimpsed from the perspective of someone suffering with depression. Watching Udo Kier walk around with his hand in front of his face—as if he’s afraid his agent will recognize him—or observing John Hurt hide dinner table spoons in his pocket almost make for amusing departures. Unfortunately they, like Charlotte Rampling’s toast-interrupting diatribe against marriage, are recognizably pitched to distract from the glaring emotional emptiness at Melancholia’s center. Leaving her husband and their marriage bed, Dunst runs outdoors to the golf course, squats and urinates, waiting for John’s cousin to follow her so she can forcibly mount him. Somewhere off camera, von Trier chuckles mirthlessly over what he’s wrought.
What doesn’t work at all is the second act, which wants to cast attention to the effect Justine’s depression is having on her and the world around her. Von Trier painstakingly sets her up for a crisis in the first half, but Justine has already emotionally and physically crashed by the time we catch back up to her in the second. She’s living with Claire and John, and seems almost unable to dress herself due to her own malaise. When John’s son creates a crude children’s toy that will allow them to measure whether Melancholia is advancing or retreating in the sky, the film gains a way to track the tension of Earth’s potential demise. As the final chapter closes, all narrative bets are off; Sutherland quietly exits, Dunst keeps flip-flopping personas, and Gainsbourg frets over the possibility of destruction.
There is simply too much use of allusion and suggestion in Melancholia, rendered impotent because it goes hand in hand with overwrought pronouncements and literal planetary explosions. Staged like a bleak and pompous metaphor for the consuming and eradicating effect of depression on the self, Melancholia finally produces a long-gestating global bang that ends with a whimper from the audience. Again, Von Trier spends too much time scoffing at populist filmmaking (he directly attacks Proyas’ Knowing during a late-in-the-game suicide chat) while using Hollywood tricks (the child’s toy and the sensationalistic opening dream world) to give his own work shape and form. After a bit, you just want to hurl so you can get off the ride.
Much like this year’s earlier Tree of Life, Melancholia wants to juxtapose the internal conflicts of emotionally harried humans with the nature of a larger universe. There was hope, faith and wonder reflected in Malick’s lens, but Lars aims for a more cynical, destructive and pessimistic vision of the cosmos. For this critic’s money, Malick earned his far-flung daydreams because of the sensitivity and passion he brought to the people at the heart of his story. Von Trier sets up a mannequin factory of types that would be chastised in a Roland Emmerich film but will likely be praised here because they afford viewers the opportunity for relentless navel-gazing. The result is the same, though—a rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem and all of the main players elicit so little sympathy that their eventual winking out means nothing at all.