They seemed forced and excessively loud, conversations drawing in the larger audience rather than two people. The crowd at the Washington premiere had filled the theater, but laughed at the finale, a single sarcastic clap mixed with hoots of derision as the screen faded to black. Amidst the throng of jolly hipsters were small pockets of silence, eyes staring blankly, seeing something that was no longer there. It’s Lars von Trier. As Kirsten Dunst’s Justine says midway through the film, “What did you expect?”
Within the first moments of Melancholia, following a montage of striking photographs in motion, the Earth is obliterated by the eponymous rogue planet to the strains of Tristan und Isolde. After the apocalyptic prologue, Melancholia is a flashback divided into two parts. The first, “Justine,” focuses on the marriage of Dunst’s character to Alexander Skarsgard’s Michael. It begins on a light-hearted note, with a limousine trying and failing to navigate a narrow country road to the delight of bride and groom. Upon arrival at the castle, Justine’s sister Claire rips into them for their lateness, and we are thrust into a grim combination of family melodrama and comedy of manners. Over the course of the reception, Justine takes a nap, strips for a bath, steals a golf cart to urinate on the course, tells off her boss, and copulates with a random male guest. It is mostly portrayed with the utmost seriousness by Von Trier, with the comic exception of Udo Kier as a wedding planner that refuses to even look at the bride. The audience took it all as a romp, laughing aloud and leading me to wonder if I had stumbled into an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The truth is Justine’s actions are eminently reasonable. The wedding is horrifying, rather than hilarious. The petty tyrannies of convention grind on and on unendurably. There are the fat girls stuffed into dresses, the lame jokes and forced laughter, the military-style schedule of her domineering sister, the nagging about cost, and the demands by her bourgeois employer to come up with a tagline for an advertisement. More than anything else, there are the repeated pleas by her sister, her brother-in-law, her groom, her father, and seemingly everyone around her that she “be happy.” Surrounded by dead- eyed relatives and plastic smiles, the reception is without spontaneity, without feeling, without significance, as if everyone there simply expects that spending money and wearing nice clothes can somehow create meaning. It is not a celebration, but just something you do.
Justine’s frantic acts of avoidance and final self-destructive rebellion are an attempt to give some color to this lifeless masquerade. She flees the reception to tuck in her nephew (Claire’s son) Leo, preferring the simple company of a child to the tuxedoed and bejeweled sophisticates. Breaking into a room with art exhibits, she rips down the bland portrayals and replaces them with images of violence, color, and, passion.
The one exception to the sad spectacle is Michael, who gamely tries to win over his supposed wife with tales of rustic life and apple orchards, winning only a vacant look of pity from a woman who realizes he can never reach her. He leaves, muttering about how it could have been different (perhaps if they hadn’t had the reception.) Von Trier misses when he portrays Justine’s mother and father viciously sniping at each other at the reception, and her father leaving early (dispute her daughter’s pleas) with a note calling her the wrong name. It’s forced, unnecessary, and explains too much. Like the motivations of a killer in a horror film, the portrayal of depression is most effective when there isn’t an easily assigned cause like a broken family and inattentive parents. Better is Justine’s unexplained attention to a star in the sky and its disappearance later in the evening. Sensitive to some core importance that they are all missing, she alone has noticed the first sign of Melancholia’sapproach.
Part two is “Claire.” Justine is listless and helpless, barely able to even take a taxi by herself. Meanwhile, Claire is increasingly worried about the approach of the planet Melancholia, even as her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) assures her that the planet will pass harmlessly. In the sole incident that shows an outside world even exists outside the castle, Claire uses the Internet to discover a theory about a “Dance of Death,” in which Melancholia will pass Earth, then loop around and destroy us. After determining that this is actually what will happen, John kills himself with pills and Claire conceals his body. As the planet comes closer, Justine is filled with energy and strength as Claire visibly disintegrates.
Conceived as a mediation on death and depression, Melancholia has a more temporal and cultural significance as a vivid portrayal of the West as a tomb. With gorgeous visuals, aristocratic settings of isolated castles, stables, and villages, and monochromatic cast, Melancholia gives us our modern civilization—external splendor concealing a deep-seated rot and spiritual emptiness. God is not just dead, but unknown. Family is a burden and a source of conflict. Modernity strips both life and death of meaning and even isolated from cities and mass media, the cancer has already possessed the body. Besides an undefined alienation, what is left besides the ruins of a bygone age? One thinks of the old conservative joke about the last New York Times headline of “World ends; women and minorities hardest hit.” If we were facing the end, are we capable of giving it meaning? Would the Last Men even care?
Claire is the postmodern post-Western woman, confident and controlling in the workaday world but hysterical and deluded when facing the reality of life. When Justine says, “Life is only on Earth, and not for long,” Claire can only respond with the pathetic retort, “I don’t think you know that at all.” In a panic, Claire seizes her son and tries and fails to get to “the village,” as if the end is more bearable (or avoidable somehow) if she is surrounded by random people. When that fails, she falls back on bourgeois respectability, suggesting that they greet the end of existence with a glass of wine on the patio. Justine sneers that perhaps they should also light a candle or play Beethoven’s Ninth, and Claire uncomprehendingly agrees, moaning that she “just wants it to be nice.” Justine speaks for all of us when she says, “You know what I think of your plan? I think it’s a piece of shit…nice, why don’t we meet on the fucking toilet.”
In contrast, Justine sees Melancholia’s approach as her own homecoming, shocking her out of her lethargy and listlessness. One night, Claire leaves the castle and finds Justine nude, bathing in the light of the planet, as von Trier gives us Wagner in the background. Claire gapes uncomprehending while Justine’s blue eyes shine with life and vitality. Wagner tells us that “fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” With the end (not just an end) imminent, Justine is filled with yearning and acceptance, rather than fear. Buried alive in the tomb of the West, Justine’s longing for self destruction is a sort of Faustian triumph, her contempt for the world a victory. In the midst of imminent death, she finds a kind of love.
The film ends with a child’s delusion. While his mother flails about helplessly, Justine and Claire’s son Leo build a “magic cave” out of sharpened sticks. Justine gently guides the almost catatonic Claire to the crude shelter, and the sister, the mother, and the son hold hands and wait. It comes suddenly, inevitably, and in horrifying form, as the planet relentlessly fills the sky. In the end, Claire breaks from her sister and son, waving her arms frantically as doom approaches. She glimpses fearfully at death, looks down, glances again, weeping, not even looking at her son, consumed with hysteria. In contrast, Leo and Justine sit quiet and serene—Leo with his faith in magic and incomprehension of death, Justine in acceptance of a fate she almost welcomes. The final scene casts a spell and creates a silence only banished by deliberately foolish and trivial conversation. The viewer wants to purge the memory. It is as close as you can come to experiencing your own death while watching a film.
Lars von Trier managed to jeopardize his masterpiece by famously declaring that he was a “Nazi” at Cannes. What he actually said was that he thought he was of Jewish decent, but found out he was German and so reverted to Godwin’s Law as all modern people inevitably do. His claim to “understand” Hitler (“though he was not what you would call a good guy”) and swipe at Israel for being a “pain in the ass” led to his condemnation by the festival. This was not some gaffe of secret extreme Right sympathies, but simply von Trier being provocative. What is more interesting is when he said, “As for the art, I’m for Speer. Albert Speer I liked. He was also one of God’s best children. He has a talent that…” before cutting himself off.
Von Trier, whatever else one may say of him, believes in Beauty without sarcasm, a meaning for art beyond the tired “social critiques,” whose messages we’ve been spoon fed our entire lives. The combination of ironic scorn for convention and the desperately earnest search for transcendence and meaning, even a horrific one as in Antichrist, shows von Trier is conscious of living in this tomb that we once called a culture, and is striving for some kind of escape, if only through self-destruction. The striving is ennobling, and even too is the destruction.
If there is no escape from the West as tomb, recognizing it as death signifies something important. Given that, it’s not self pity or weakness to speak as Justine: “The Earth is evil… no one will miss it.” It’s at least a step towards the great contempt, awareness that there is something sick and wrong here. Even death without redemption is superior than conforming to the dead eyes and forced laughter commanding us to “be happy.”