If you were Justine from Melancholia, you’d have a tough time. A creepy boss, divorced parents, strained sibling relations, apocalyptic nightmares; tough times indeed. And that’s before a rogue super-earth called Melancholia decides to crash your wedding.
Lars von Trier’s new film is nothing if not surprising. With a synopsis that sounds like The Wedding Crashers directed by an insane astrophysicist and a somewhat misleading trailer featuring a melting golf course and killer wool I wasn’t sure what to expect. I spent at least half of the film waiting for the aliens to arrive.
What you get here though is not aliens and (unfortunately) not killer wool. Melancholia is in fact a searing study of depression and a modern take on celestial apocalypse. The film begins, like most medieval apocalypses, with a vision of the forthcoming destruction of Earth. We see each portent of the apocalypse as a spectacular slow-motion photograph: birds will plunge from the sky, a mother and son will sink into a nuclear sludge, a child will sharpen a stick in fear. The message is simple: the end is nigh and even our most primitive instincts can do nothing to save us.
The film’s subsequent events do nothing to wane the wounding horror of this prophecy. Justine’s wedding reception is pretty much a cavalcade of self-inflicted awkward and disastrous events. The sheer drama of things means that Melancholia veers close to farce here: Justine’s sister Claire’s husband unreasonably rants at Justine about the expense of having the reception in his house when in reality hiring a venue would have been much costlier. A scene in which the mother of the bride gives her speech at the reception, damning the institution of marriage from behind the folds of a massive blue tie-dye T-shirt also seems unlikely in its venom. Why did she even attend?
The film’s second half is where things really get going. As Melancholia approaches we are encouraged to view the prospective reactions of the humans on earth, the panic of Claire and the calm acceptance of Justine. Dunst’s days are done as arm-accessory Mary-Jane in Spiderman; here she is fatalistic, scarred and dramatic. One can’t help but think of space opera when Claire finds Dunst bathing naked under the ethereal glow of the approaching planet like something out of a sci-fi geek’s wildest fantasies.
In fact rather a lot of the film feels spacey. Because of the lack of 20th century reference and ambiguous location it’s often difficult to place things in time and space, thus increasing the crushing sense of isolation in Justine’s depression. If it weren’t for the cars and clothes Melancholia could have taken place literally on another planet: scenes in the country manor golf course seem oddly futuristic, conversations and interactions are tinted with a freaky yellow glow and cars reversing are reduced to red lights shrinking into the darkness. The location of the film also invites speculation; despite the American accents, there is something very British about the idea of an overcast country manor wedding with stables, golf course and a butler. Surprisingly the film was filmed in neither: it was shot in Sweden.
This speculation is exactly what director von Trier wants and succeeds in; you leave the cinema desperate to relate to somebody the horrifying magnitude of whatever the hell it was you just saw. I won’t spoil the ending but it is the only time in my life that I have thought that, perhaps, a wedding could be a more socially divisive collision of worlds than an interplanetary apocalypse. I feel that these crazy conclusions are exactly what Trier wants the viewer to have; Melancholia is in fact a film that screams for speculation, interpretation and analysis and the splitting of its two halves only encourages comparison between them. There is also something painful about the denial you go through as a member of the audience: its impossible to explain why without revealing the end, but Melancholia is a film as much about your reactions and thought processes as it is the characters’. All in all I loved it. But I wish there had been more of the killer wool.
Image credit – 55Laney69