Goodbye, Cruel World
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Lars von Trier, Denmark, Magnolia Pictures
Towards the end of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the troubled—and, as strongly implied in a third-act revelation, clairvoyant—Justine (Kirsten Dunst) reflects on the earth’s imminent demise. “The earth is evil,” she observes, clearly the mouthpiece of her film’s notoriously provocative maker, “We don’t need to grieve for it.” Trier’s Melancholia has drawn many comparisons to another cosmic existential head trip that, like this film, debuted at Cannes 2011: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Their superficially similar structures are obvious. The former imagines, with despondent nihilism, the end of the world through the experience of a person uncommonly attuned to the worthlessness of living; the latter tries to make sense of death and human suffering by contemplating the origins of the universe and of life on earth, as well as the childhood of its protagonist. It should be stated on the outset, however, that Trier’s film is not the yin to Malick’s yang; it is its opposite.
Trier contemplates the whole of human existence and dismisses it; Malick, with quite a bit more philosophical rigor, examines the same and, quite generously, finds beauty and meaning instead. Malick’s detractors were made nervous by the expression of faith that ends his film (it’s easy to dismiss faith with sarcasm); I, on the other hand, would always take the beauty and hope in Malick’s movie above Trier’s dispiriting cynicism. Not that this cynicism is anything new. Trier’s gifts behind the camera are diminished by his penchant for knee-jerk negativity. If Antichrist was a refreshing trip to crazyland for this controversial director—its vision so muddled that the movie around it became an arresting and engrossing confessional—Melancholia is a dispiriting return to form for a filmmaker who suffers when he knows exactly what he wants to say and delights in pissing the world off.
It should be made clear, however, that Trier’s movie has problems beyond its philosophical paucity. Melancholia begins with a lengthy and undeniably lovely prologue that imagines the end of the world in dreamlike extreme slow motion, scored to Wagner. Justine stands on a lawn in her wedding dress; horses seem to melt into the earth; electrical currents rise from poles and fingers; finally, the earth collides into a mysterious blue planet. Many of these images recur, and though the prologue is thrilling moviemaking, it ends up dulling the effect of much of the rest of the movie. Divided into two parts, Melancholia first plays as a naturalistic, if unconvincing, character study, before veering off to depict the events leading up to the apocalypse shown in the film’s opening minutes.
In part one, the cripplingly depressed Justine—played with affecting vulnerability by a never-better Kirsten Dunst—marries Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a handsome cipher with no discernible inner life or motivation for anything that he says or does. When we first meet them they are making their way from ceremony to reception in an impractical stretch limo that cannot negotiate the countryside. Delayed by impossible turns, they arrive two hours late at the reception, hosted at the ostentatious country-club home of sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).
From the inauspicious start to their wedding reception, things go from bad to worse in ways that never seem to reflect real human behavior. Michael’s best man (Stellan Skarsgård), also Justine’s boss, gives her a promotion to ad agency art director during his toast, before issuing her an immediate assignment and forcing his nephew (Brady Corbet) to trail her all night in order to record her ideas. Justine and Claire’s parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) each embarrass in their own way: he makes a game of stealing spoons from the waiter; she gives a vicious speech in which she denounces the institution of marriage and admonishes her daughter, “enjoy it while it lasts.” Justine then goes to pee on one of the golf greens while the guests back in the house dance to an instrumental version of “La Bamba.” It’s clear early on that Justine and her mother both have severe mental problems, but Trier never establishes in any believable way why everyone around them would put them in this social situation or react to their behavior as they do.
At this point, the timeline gets fuzzy. Justine tucks her young nephew in, falls asleep, wakes up, takes a bath, and arrives back at the party unfashionably late for the 11:30 cake cutting. The movie then proceeds to pack a month’s worth of incident into an indeterminate—and impossibly few—number of hours. Justine and Michael have a private conversation in which they contemplate, rather sweetly—and this being a film by Lars von Trier, rather emptily—their future together. They dance and drink and retire to a room to (unsuccessfully) consummate their marriage. Then she bolts, fucks a dumpy near-stranger instead of Skarsgård (and even if you’re crazy—really?), stops off for some onion soup, angrily quits her job, and observes as Michael finally leaves her—all sometime between midnight and dawn.
Concerns about wobbly timelines and suspensions of disbelief may seem minor when discussing the work of an internationally acclaimed auteur, but the confusing structure of Melancholia’s first half exposes Trier’s inability at approximating emotional realism. Justine is believably depressive and damaged, but nothing that happens around her has even a whiff of authenticity, first frame to last. I struggled through the wedding sequence to make sense of it all: how she knew her husband or how well or long they’d known one another; why she had agreed to marry and then why she’d decided to sabotage her wedding; and how all of this could possibly happen in one night. Episodic in the worst way, part one plays like a shrill and repetitive run-on sentence authored by someone who has a clear idea of what he wants to say but hasn’t adequately structured and packaged those ideas.
As evidenced by Melancholia’s prologue, Trier—working here with DP Manuel Alberto Claro—is a gifted imagemaker and a forceful directorial presence. He has the eye and the conviction to make powerful filmic statements. He falls short—too often for a filmmaker with his undeniable talents—in translating those ideas into tenable narratives, by which I mean coherent, compelling, and internally consistent, not necessarily believable. In fact, part two of Melancholia, titled “Claire,” is an improvement on part one, largely because Trier dispenses with naturalism and psychologizing in favor of a preposterous sci-fi conceit: a mysterious blue planet named Melancholia, previously hidden by the sun, has emerged and is going to fly by earth, perhaps on a collision course. This is an outlandish idea on its face, but it allows the filmmaker to liberate himself from the conventionality of the movie’s first half, finding in the preposterousness of its second a way to engage in the ideas at the heart of his film—the nature of depression and the serenity it grants those who suffer from it in dire circumstances—less through incident than through character.
Somehow, it’s easier to accept the bald absurdity of a planet “hidden behind the sun” than it is to wrap one’s mind around post-coital onion soup at three in the morning [UPDATE: As it turns out, the depiction of a protracted wedding reception culminating in late-night/early-morning onion soup is in fact consistent with the French tradition of
La Soupe. While my criticisms of these particular aspects of Melancholia are therefore ill-informed, I stand behind the assessment that everything every character does in part one of the film is absolutely preposterous.—CW]. Once Trier moves past the wedding, his narrative becomes more purely schematic and metaphorical, and yet it proves more compelling. A debilitatingly depressed Justine comes to stay with her sister and her family. John is confident in a naive, moneyed, and masculine way that Melanchoia’s fly-by is cause for excitement rather than concern, while Claire reveals herself to be the film’s true Trierian female hysteric. Terrified that the world is about to end, she wakes up in the middle of the night to Google “Melancholia death” and sneaks out to buy pills to commit suicide should the worst come to pass. At the beginning of part two, Justine displays outward signs of hysteria, barely able to move or bathe herself. Claire makes her a meatloaf, and Justine begins to weep, complaining that it tastes like ash. The two sisters take their horses out for a ride, and when Justine’s becomes reticent, she beats it to an inch of its life. This extreme behavior is a red herring. As Trier’s mysterious blue planet nears, the two sisters slowly trade places. A nervous Claire follows Justine out of the house at night, only to find her sister serene and smiling, sprawled naked on a riverbank, basking in the blue light given off by Melancholia. In her moments of most severe distress, Claire loses the perspective necessary to tend to her young son, and it is Justine, whom the boy has nicknamed “Aunt Steelbreaker” (for reasons that are never clear) who assuages his anxiety in his time of need.
As Melancholia flies by, Claire obsessively checks the makeshift device her son has rigged to determine its proximity. Eventually she comes to realize, as we know from the prologue, that doom is the only possible outcome, that the apocalypse is at hand. By including the prologue, Trier makes a clear decision to reveal where his movie is headed from the beginning. This is an artistically valid choice, one that reflects the nihilism intrinsic to this worldview and colors our perception of Justine, Claire, and John, particularly through the second part. It has the unfortunate consequence, however, of making the movie feel protracted—Trier’s world nears its end far too slowly. Claire begs her sister to experience the apocalypse with her on her terrace, sipping a glass of wine. It’s a hopelessly bourgeois and romantic way to end the world, and Justine dismisses her request with scorn. No sentimentalizing here. How curious, then, that there is something sentimental in Melancholia’s final image. Maybe Trier has some small bit of affection for this world and these people he’s created after all. More likely, I suspect he’s so delighted about being given the chance to destroy this pathetic little planet—twice—that he couldn’t resist the impulse to make it beautiful. Trier’s world—the world of Dogville and Dancer in the Dark and, now, Melancholia—seems like a lousy, sad, miserable place. I’m glad he got a chance to blow it up. And I’m happy I don’t live there.