The end of the world is a great fear of mine. Easily my biggest fear. It is irrational, I understand this, I can calmly explain how absurd it is. Think about it, I may have 90 years on this planet. Maybe. To think that this place, which has supported life for millions of years, will suddenly have that emphatically and irreversibly wiped out during the blink of an eye that I inhabit it is so unlikely that it barely warrants mentioning. But this line of thought is not very comforting in the middle of the night when reason and practicality give way to the things you dread most. So with that I had an uneasy anticipation for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, a film that attracted me because of its pedigree and terrified me because of its subject matter.
But Melancholia is not really about the end of the world, not the way, say 2012 is. True, in the universe that von Trier constructs, a planet collides with Earth, destroying it, but that is hardly as devastating in the mind of Justine as the wedding she has just had, where her family’s dysfunction, her own faults and the weakness of those who claim to love her all come to full public view.
Many movies begin with weddings, they are ideal places to introduce a large number of characters and easily and interestingly define their relationships. There has never been a wedding in a movie like the one that constitutes the first hour of Melancholia. We begin with the bride and groom, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) on their way from the ceremony to the reception. The limo is stuck for some reason and is trying to turn around on a narrow road and is having difficulty because of its length. After the driver proves to be unequal to the task, the bride and the groom take turns trying to get the vehicle in the right direction. They are in love and are jokingly trying to get the trip back on track in a scene of sweetness and joy. Upon their arrival to the reception (housed in a mansion with a look and massive yard that reminded me of Last Year At Marienbad) we find out that they are 2 hours late. Could it have possibly taken that long to correct the limo? The reason for the limo’s trouble was never explained in the first place, two hours? We have seen the last of the happy couple, and any kind of normalcy, from this point on the wedding descends into Bunuellian strangeness as if an uncomfortable wedding were placed in front of a fun house mirror. We meet Justine’s sister and brother-in-law, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and John (Kiefer Sutherland), and get the impression that Claire has spent the most time with the wedding planner (a well used Udo Kier) on her sister’s behalf. We meet Justine’s father, played by John Hurt who seems to have brought two dates to the affair, both named Betty. Then there’s Jack (Stellen Skarsgard), Justine’s boss and Michael’s best man who begins a toast with what seems to be a throwaway joke about Justine meeting a work deadline by the end of the evening that we find out he is very serious about. We meet Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) who interrupts the father-of-the-bride’s toast to bitterly issue her disapproval of marriage as an institution. After an awkward but sweet speech by Michael there’s dancing and eating. These guests are troopers. No one seems to leave after the two hour delay or even the impassioned dissidence from the mother-of-the-bride (there was even a smattering of applause) which would make any normal wedding very tense indeed. The once-blushing bride is so overwhelmed she abandons the party right before the cake is to be cut and it’s another two hours before she emerges again. Nobody leaves. Alone again at one point, the chemistry between the bride and groom is gone. He doesn’t understand anymore, he hungrily grabs at her and she pushes him away. “Just give me a minute,” she pleads. Later they find themselves in a sand trap of the property’s 18-hole golf course and they consummate the marriage. Her boss Jack has become maniacal in his pursuit of this piece of work from Justine (a tagline for an ad his agency is running) and she blows up at him, quitting her job in front of the intern who had been fired earlier for his failure to get the tagline from her. Justine and the intern share a mysterious discussion out on that courtyard that, for intrigue and suggestion, would fit nicely in Resnais’s film.
The movie then shifts it’s focus from Justine to Claire. Claire had been in the peripherals of Part 1, adding her two cents here and there and generally disapproving of the continuing undoing of the evening. She is put together, organized, a type-A. In Part 2, she has taken in Justine who is on fragile mental ground. It’s unclear how long this takes place after the wedding, or even, if there was a wedding at all. It seems hard to believe the Justine we see here could hold a job. It’s hinted at that Justine suffers from depression, both in the dialogue between Claire and John at the beginning of the second portion and through her behavior during the wedding. It is at this point that it is revealed that a planet named Meloncholia is coming awfully close to Earth. Claire is terrified by the prospect and is not too reassured when John tells her that science has determined it will miss our planet. As Meloncholia approaches Claire becomes more and more unhinged. If she acted as the disapproving angel on Justine’s shoulder in the first half of the film, Justine becomes the mocking imp laughing at the rubble of Claire’s life in the second. Justine understands that the things Claire clings to, the things Claire uses to define herself are ultimately unimportant. With apocalyptic glee she taunts Claire and the inability of her organization, her responsibility, her healthy family life to do anything in the face of the oncoming doom. Like Michael, John soon becomes nowhere to be seen and the two sisters are left alone to face the end of days. I didn’t find the movie to be a depressing experience though I did identify with Claire and her impotent fear of the world’s coming doom, but I took the movie to be an opportunity to assess the things one finds important. I would also imagine, that for someone suffering from depression, the world feels as if it’s already ended, so Justine’s cruel glee at Claire’s dismay is her way of welcoming her sister to a place she has existed in for years, which is nowhere. Von Trier has made a powerful and delicate film in stark contrast to the way he made a buffoon of himself when he presented it at Cannes in 2011 (When asked about his German roots he said, “I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew… I found out that I was really a Nazi which also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler,” he joked. Not funny. Less sensational but just as offensive he mentioned plans to remake his movie into a four-hour porno starring Dunst and Rampling and “a lot of very, very unpleasant sex,” essentially belittling the important and serious work they did for him in Melancholia), as much as it can, that behaviour should stay outside of a viewing of the film, which is masterful and seems to have better taste than its maker’s public persona.