By Bret Dorman
Earlier this year I had The Tree of Life on my radar. I had never seen a Terrence Mallick film (not true, I saw The New World once when it first hit DVD but was rather unimpressed because I didn’t know what to expect and thought it would just be a regular movie). But after seeing The Tree of Life I was amazed. Halfway into this year Melancholia hit my radar. It was making a big splash a Cannes for two reasons. One, it was supposed to be good. Two, Lars Von Trier made some Nazi comments, apologized for them, then took back his apology but was banned from Cannes regardless. I’m familiar with Von Trier’s reputation but had never seen one of his movies either (true). After seeing Melancholia… I was amazed.
The Story: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is already married to John (Kiefer “Jack “Damnit!” Bauer” Sutherland). There is a fancy wedding at a mansion with a golf course. Also, a rogue planet threatens to destroy the entire world.
Melancholia starts out with two things I really hate. Firstly, it is a super slow motion foreshadowing of the looming doom that the rogue planet brings. It is very artsy and pretentious. However, while it is artsy and pretentious to kick the movie off with a celestial apocalypse and do so with immaculate lighting and a painterly vibe while set to classical music, it is also overwhelmingly beautiful. Throughout the rest of the movie though you wonder if this foreshadow is something movies do to trick audiences and make them feel that something bad is going to happen then just switch it up to a happy ending which we are all supposed to be grateful for because the movie tricked us and it was almost a negative ending. This movie opens with that sort of vibe…
The film is done in two chapters. The first one focuses mostly on Justine and her wedding. Once you realize this is going to be a 50+ min scene with no plot and just character work, you will start to enjoy it more. The wedding is one of those extravagant fantasy weddings with lots of guests, dancing, family drama, food, and hot air paper balloons fueled by candles. Dunst really shines in this first half, where Melancholia is barely alluded to but you can still feel its effects on her depression, lack of interest, and sexual frustration. Upon retrospect or multiple viewings her characters’s motivations make more sense seeing as she believes the world is going to end soon. In this wedding scene we also get a moderately mundane casserole of characters. Her husband is the typical fish out of water, her sister provides the typical ‘this is what you want’ pressure, her brother-in-law is angry about wasted money and his under appreciated golf course, the boss needs to get her to finish ‘the big account’ and save the day last minute, and the mom gives an anti-romance rant. If you boil it down like this there really is nothing spectacular here and I understand how people can find it shallow. But it’s this elegant setting, allowance to let characters be people, quiet humor, attention to small details while keeping the grand ideas upfront that makes this movie intriguing and interesting.
At the start of the second chapter Justine is immediately transformed from a frustrated worrier to basically incompetent depressed shell. Melancholia and it’s collision course move to the forefront and topics of depression and the end of the world are talked about together and frequently. I imagine going through major depression can feel like the end of the world and to have it not just be a personal problem, but a global problem seems a little self-indulgent. But by the end the overwhelming feeling of worthlessness that Justine feels envelopes the audience and the metaphor is not only fine, but envelopes with such gravitas it’s good.
Chapter two is also where Dunst is given some rather clunkier moments and lines of dialogue. The performance shifts from subtle to overt. But the chapter is appropriately named after Claire, who is like a surrogate for the audience. She is frustrated with Justine and terrified of Melancholia and The End. Her husband, Jack, is either a professional astronomer or has a Bruce Wayne like obsession and wealth to be able to find his ‘hobby’. He reassures us that Melancholia will simply pass and he knows what he is talking about. The movie builds to a pretty amazing end.
One thing I did not expect (from what I knew of Von Trier and the general subject matter) was for the movie to be as funny as it was. John’s obsession with his golf course, John Hurts; ladies man routine, the boss’ approach to get Justine’s work done via surprise promotion of an unknowing and unsuited coworker and threatening of demotion, Justine’s super bluntness in a later conversation with her own sister, the throwing out the bags of an unwanted guest and someone immediately coming back outgo retrieve them, and Udo Kier’s hilarious wedding planner who is upset that Justine ruined “his” wedding and not only his response to this but his dedication to it as well. It was nice to see Kier given a role where he cold have so much fun and he nailed it.
So Melancholia comes towards Earth, drifts away, then comes back. Normally I would find this very frustrating, but it keeps faithful to the diagram Claire printed out. The slow motion at the beginning that also showed the planetary collision from afar… Yeah, it happens. Its a very overwhelming moment of pure fear. Not fear necessarily for the characters themselves, but fear that there is nothing you can do to escape death. Death comes for us all (in this movie, all at the same time) and we can not escape. Also fear that is the Earth is destroyed, not only will a pesrson’s single legacy be gone, but the entire human race’s presence will be destroyed. After death, some people still live on through others’ memories (or if you’re Tupac, Elvis, or Johnny Cash you live on through record sales of “newly found and previously unreleased tracks”), but if everyone dies then after death you aren’t even a memory. That’s like the most ultimate depressing thing. Ever. For everyone.
I found it selfish that John would take ALL the sleeping pills, but his willingness to make sure he is dead dead and not just kind of asleep says a lot about the expert who was so sure nothing would happen that he was actually excited to see Melancholia.
Justine’s late night sexy scene was a little bit overboard but mesmerizing none the less. I feel that her conversation with Claire near the end was a bit too harsh. Yes I get that it was all meaningless and it really doesn’t matter how you die or that you should try to make the kid feel the most comfortable, but when Claire pours her heart out to her sister, for Justine to just dismiss it all with such viciousness isn’t really funny. I understand why some people would laugh, as they did. I laughed at the balls of Justine to say such things, but ultimately it’s just mean. There’s other ways to get a “look she’s being mean and saying what you don’t expect” laugh without going overboard. To paraphrase Billy Madison after the Principle/Judge gives him no points on his last essay question and calls everyone in the room dumber for having just listened to him… “a simple no would have done just fine.”
In Conlusion, this year we got two extraordinary movies with celestial overtones and personal, intimate stories. The Tree of Life was an uplifting story that promises it’ll all be okay. Melancholia is a depressing movie that shows no remorse or compassion for that thing the rest of us call “fear of dying a meaningless death.” It’s told with such accuracy that you certainly don’t question the fact that Von Trier himself suffered from an “episode of depression.” This film is like the ultimate nightmare for anyone through the eyes of the most worrisome worrier. And it’s really beautiful while doing it.
Final Grade: A-