It’s the End of the World and She Knows it
Melancholia is a masterpiece of science fiction filmmaking and is perhaps director Lars Von Trier’s most fully realized work to date. His unique screenplay explores the emotional struggle to cope with the impending apocalypse—a deeply personal character study.
Kirsten Dunst gives a career-making performance as the depressed Justine. Her bitter honesty is disturbing to hear spoken in her soft, child-like voice. Equally powerful is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as her devastated sister Claire, who is repressed by her domineering husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, whose intense but subdued mannerisms are well suited here). Justine comes to John’s mansion for her wedding reception, but soon is overcome with nihilistic urges after she receives a premonition of Earth’s inevitable collision with the approaching planet Melancholia.
I often see critics and audiences call Melancholia a sci-fi film with very little sci-fi, but I’d argue otherwise. There’s an abundance of science fiction—just as prevalent as a more action-oriented film like Deep Impact. But Von Trier’s style is the epitome of verisimilitude. We experience the end of the world as the characters do. After the beautiful prelude of surrealist, apocalyptic imagery, we are permanently aligned with Justine and her family—no Michael Bay-esque shots from space, almost no music to ease our tension. By depriving us of this privileged view that virtually all other end-of-the-world sci-films offer, we are rendered impotent, and consequently experience dread as we helplessly watch the planet approach with the family.
John’s rural estate represents neoclassical civilization’s self-assumed superiority over nature. The castle-like house is set apart from urban life, and the golf-course symbolizes man’s attempt to tame the woods. An Enlightenment thinker, John refuses to acquiesce to the inexplicable natural power of the Sublime, confident that his science can explain and conquer the mysterious Melancholia.
Give it up, Claire. Those orderly window panes won’t shield you from the permeating chaos of Melancholia.
The sun dial, a tool of the Enlightenment Age, is disrupted by the blue planet, who casts a second shadow.
Like the proud Charles Peale (top), John only entertains an exclusive audience when imparting his scientific knowledge—one that doesn’t include his domesticated wife, who isn’t even allowed on the internet. What a dick.
The unearthly phenomena that ensue as the planet nears, therefore, are never elucidated. Such is Von Trier’s Lynchean love for ambiguity.
His previous film Antichrist offered a double dosage of ambiguity.. and a triple dosage of genital mutilation.
As Melancholia rises like the sun, the birds are thrown into disarray, chirping wildly at the chaotic alteration to their sky. A low rumbling pervades the soundtrack throughout the final twenty minutes, and the lack of a nondiegetic score leaves the spectator feeling alienated, as we are not told how to react. Is the mood one of excitement? Of awe? Of dread?
The uncertainty filling the countenances of the three leads is disconcerting for us. Which reaction should we imitate?
The script is impeccably crafted, the characters complex and intriguing. The film’s first half introduces us to several equally-fascinating elitists, all of whom are dissatisfied by their decadent lives. When things boil up at Justine and Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgard) wedding, Von Trier serves us a scrumptious dish of bitter confrontation between the members of the aristocracy’s underbelly.
Justine is an enigma, whose melancholy has reached such heights that she can’t wait for the world to end. She abandons civilization and returns to a neolithic era, symbolized by her primitive tent of sticks.
Possibly the loudest most bombastic climax ever.
DAAAAAAAMN.. Er, I mean, here we see Justine become one with nature. Cha-ching!
Von Trier’s direction is at its peak. From the beautifully composed static shots to the hand-held documentary-style during the wedding, every take is meticulously shot. The apocalypse has never been so appealing. Time will reveal how high Melancholia will be seated among the greatest science fiction films. For now, it’s gratifying to see an innovative and unique approach to a genre that has primarily been dominated by blockbuster schlock.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
…and now for more awesome cinematography.