“I’m glad you’re with me, Lars von Trier, here at the end of all things”
Lars von Trier is formalist and Brechtian in his approach to storytelling, employing alienating devices that remind the viewer that they are watching a construct designed to prompt both emotion and thought. He consistently employs conventional genre frameworks to craft challenging and provocative cinema. With his latest film, Melancholia, he cleverly and compassionately frames the end of the world as a beautiful and empowering fable. It is at once both operatic and intimate. The film opens with an overture – grand, surrealistic and meditative images of earth’s destruction underscored by Wagner. Then, there is wedding at an isolated and luxurious estate where the bride (Justine) seems determined to alienate herself from everyone and ruin the event. Lastly, we watch as Justine, her sister (Claire), Claire’s husband (John) and their young son (Leo) await the end of the world. This end comes in the form of a large planet named “Melancholia.” Acknowledging Justine’s mental condition and the pervading feeling of the film as a whole, the planet’s name is an obvious metaphor. Von Trier is not trying to be subtle here, and while the explicitness of this conceit may seem like condescension, his intention is to slap us hard across the face, and knock us from our foundations. This is not intended merely for the effect, but to force us to pay attention. Depending on our sensibilities, this will either cause us to shut down and dismiss his efforts, or take them home and let them fester.
With a cold and distant performance by Kristen Dunst, we watch as Justine destroys her marriage—before it even begins—and lose her career in the course of a single evening. Before a hundred guests at her wedding, Justine dismantles the artifacts of her domestic and professional worlds. We can tell that she has somehow lost faith in the structure of her civilized life, and that a consuming melancholia has obliterated any hope of connecting to the artifacts of that life. Her mannered sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) does what she can to reel Justine in from brink of despair, but her efforts are in vain. The film does not try to explain Justine’s unraveling, nor could it; such existential terrors cannot be justified, there is struggle enough just in the attempt to describe them. There is a passage in Mark Z. Danieleweski’s novel House of Leaves that comes to mind:
“Then no matter where you are, in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the comforts of your own home, you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious.”
Justine has dismantled her world, and the effect is devastating. But Von Trier suggests that, having dismantled her world, she is afforded the strength to accept the total and complete end of it. In fact, the film goes so far as to suggest that Justine’s fatalistic attitude makes her far more able to deal with the end of the world than Claire, who desperately tries to hold on to the semblance of a normal life in the face of complete annihilation. Claire will not let go of the remnants of her civilized world, and is incapacitated when the stability of that civilized world is undermined. When faced with the reality of Melancholia and the destruction it brings, their roles are reversed. The melancholic Justine becomes the backbone and it is up to her to establish the terms under which they will face the end.
Right up until the final devastating impact, Claire desperately clings to civilized structures—trying to get to a nearby town to hide from the approaching planet, suggesting a formal evening on the terrace with wine and music to celebrate the end of everyone’s lives. Justine does not indulge her sister, but harshly points out the futility of Claire’s attempts at maintaining a facade of normality in the midst of such finality. “Do you know what I think of your plan? I think it’s a piece of shit.” As cruel as she seems, Justine’s intentions are not malicious. She just doesn’t see the merit of trying to maintain the illusion of normal life when there is no future. She isolates herself, and seems to connect only to the approaching Melancholia. Her relationship with the planet is earthy and sensual—she basks, naked, in its glow. She accepts the inevitability of its fate and their own and finds it more beautiful and understandable than the marriage and career she lost earlier. However, when Justine sees her nephew’s quiet fear of the planet, she is suddenly compelled to construct a game to occupy their last remaining moments. Collecting sticks from the forest, she leads them to build a makeshift fort to shelter them as they prepare for oblivion. It is just as much a game as what Claire intended, but it presents itself more honestly as a game. This is Justine’s small, but wise and kind, final gesture.
Where a conventional apocalyptic science fiction film would strive to paint the earth’s destruction on a large canvas, Melancholia maintains a heavy intimacy. There are no news reports, no footage of people running and screaming, just three people huddled together under a looming planet. By opening with the destruction of earth, we are able to think of it more figuratively. We spend the rest of the film dreading the inevitable, and hoping the characters might find some impossible way out. But we know that the planet will eventually hit, and it doesn’t matter where they hide or what they grab onto. We are all united by this common fate—the end. Regardless of our beliefs in science, or religion or each other, we are all going to die. We watch as Melancholia smashes Justine, Claire, Leo, and the entire earth, apart. It is important to distinguish their individual reactions. Claire, unable to accept and overwhelmed by despair, desperately tries to block out reality by closing her eyes and covering her ears. Justine, eyes wide open and aware, is calm and accepting. Leo, learning from the calm adult, and heeding her advice, closes his eyes and calmly waits.
This is not a nihilistic fable. The devastating finale is oddly uplifting. Sitting in the dark after the impact, and walking away from the theatre, I found myself reflecting upon the empowering notions encoded in those final moments. We do not always have control over our circumstances, only our choices. When the end comes, meaning is to be found in how we face it. Despite her crippling struggles with life, Justine is able to find the strength to accept the conditions of her existence that are out of her control. There is a definite Buddhist message woven into the fabric of this tale; acceptance is a key to easing our suffering in the face of harsh truths, and that denial leads only to the continuance of meaningless suffering. Melancholia challenges us to reflect upon our attitudes and perhaps re-frame our struggles in a more useful and empowering light.
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland