by Paul Deeter
This is a continuation of the article on Trier's Antichrist, and will be covering this film in the trilogy, before the final two-part Nymphomaniac. To read the previous article you can click this link. For the sake of avoiding redundancy, I will skip the introduction of Lars Von Trier and his work establishing this trilogy and himself as an "auteur" but you can read all of that in the first article. Enjoy.
The film Antichrist spends a great deal on depression, as it had focused on being inspired and somewhat introspective on the director's mental illness. The background of Melancholia does not come off too far from the mentality Trier was in for his first film in the trilogy. In an interview about the film, Trier went on to discuss that
The idea for the film originated during a therapy session...attended during treatments for his depression. A therapist had told von Trier that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen. Von Trier then developed the story not primarily as a disaster film, and without any ambition to portray astrophysics realistically, but as a way to examine the human psyche during a disaster...
This film is a product of the human approach to the subject, along with the culmination of a history of "end of the world" ideologies that have plagued our society for years before. Since Y2K and the beginning of the millenium, we've had our fair share of meteors, acts of war and such to terrify us into believing the end was near. The release of this film in 2011 also superseded a year everyone thought was going to be the end: 2012. So this film, being ten years old today, is an interesting time capsule of a feeling of paranoia shared worldwide at the time, that somewhat resonates to this day. It's a film that had the right move to gravitate from the themes and darkness of Antichrist, while living in its own mature realm of storytelling.
Interestingly enough, and not unlike the previous film, we enter Melancholia through a series of fantastical images of lightning emerging from our protagonists fingers, darkness looming over the sky and slow-motion montages of people in distress. Much like the broad and bombastic classical music accompaniment of visuals and sound in Antichrist, Trier uses Wagner liberally throughout the whole film from the piece Tristan and Isolde. Another argument could be made here, as was before in Antichrist, that Trier sure thinks highly of himself to orchestrate opera into an independent feature. But the dreamlike state of the imagery goes on to establish this film as a thoughtful analysis of human emotion, over end-of-the-world fear-mongering.
Lars Von Trier chose to continue Gainsbourg in her arc of the three, but interestingly enough does not star her in the leading role, or at least not until the latter half of the film. Instead we have Kirsten Dunst (never better) as a young bride Justine. Justine is the focus of the first part of the film, broken into two parts: Justine and Claire. The film doesn't leave it's gorgeous setting of Justine's sister Claire's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gorgeous mansion villa. She lives with her young son Leo, and disgruntled husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). John and Justine don't get along very well, in fact not a lot of characters take kindly to Justine or her reputation. As unfortunate as it is brief, her wedding is halted and occasionally derailed toward its inevitable collision. She leaves the party frequently to be alone, take baths and avoid guests. This behavior is matched in here prickly mother, although her father shares enthusiasm in her life, and Justine goes so far as to alienate herself from her boss who's in attendance, and even throw things off for her husband. It's brief and dramatic and painful. We don't know what's happening in Justine's mind, but things are not going well, and it's only Claire left to defend her to every guest and family member.
This opening part is so curiously different from the second half of the movie, where the title becomes literal, and the story of Melancholia is told. There are rumors of astrological anomalies, little displacements of stars and the movement of the large planet titled Melancholia into our trajectory. It fascinates John, but sends Justine into fits, falling into a deep depression that leaves her nearly catatonic. This all occurs in Claire's part, while Claire plays the anxious citizen, a reflection of an individual in a larger alarmed society afraid of the unknown. Justine seems wise, almost psychic, and elements of her clairvoyance (a word alluding to her sister Claire?) scare Claire in ways she can't handle. Claire is optimistic but overwhelmingly anxious, and her anxiety feels real. When this movie was initially released in 2011, I imagine myself a lot like her character. I think part of me was aware of the film's popularity but tried to avoid it because movies at the time, like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, were just too eerie or anxiety-inducing for my liking. The timing of this film was very relevant, and Claire's character very real and lived in.
This is what I mean when I say Gainsbourg doesn't really come into light until the second part. It's not just named after her character, it's focused on her journey from bigger sister in control of taking care of Justine, to the helplessly scared character who has no control over the universe. This is part of the psychology of the movie, as Trier had discussed in his therapeutic way: how does one react under the anxiety of a life-or-death situation? Well it comes down to this: there's nothing to react to. My mom once said (and probably would say again) that in the disaster films where everyone flees to the highways and state lines to escape the zombie, meteors, aliens et al.. she would stay at home. Why? Well there's really no point, we're all going down the same path, some of us quicker than others. Yes that's an entirely bleak and morbid concept, but so is the end of the world. Whether we're calm as Justine or a nervous wreck like Claire, it matters not.
With this in mind, Melancholia is a truly bleak movie, maybe even more so than Antichrist, which deals with death more intimately. But we're only witness to a small portion of life on Earth prior to the end, (spoilers: the world ends). With it we're allowed to enjoy some of the most amazing imagery Trier has ever accomplished, and some truly incredible acting from our two leads. The movie doesn't force us into any decision making, but asks us to question our own thoughts on the subject. Is it easy to put yourself in Claire's shoes, to suffer and sob while there's nothing left to do? Or can we find ourselves blissfully imaginative as the her son and Justine, making a magic cave to protect them in their final moments? Or worse, would we act cowardly like John, who chose death before seeing the end come? There is no right or wrong answer: we're all ending up in the same place.
I'll stop being bleak.
This film is oddly not my favorite of the trilogy, although it's hard to decide where I would place it behind my favorite (stay tuned). The truth is, this film is widely regarded as his best of the series, and some would say even his best film ever. Melancholia was received at around 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was met divisively by critics, although not as mixed as Antichrist was. It would leave audiences perplexed far after it's initial release, and on top of many top ten lists of the year and the decade...The film... received 12 votes—seven from critics and five from directors—in the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies ever made, making it one of the few films of the 21st century to appear within the top 250... The movie is still the highest rated critically of the trilogy, including the final two-parter, and it stands apart as a truly unique vision of the last decade of cinema. On that note, I had only seen it the once as of this week, like I mentioned prior I think 2011 me would have had trouble handling the dark and real nature of the film. I left with an amazing experience, one as a seasoned film critic and simultaneously as someone who's suffered from depression and anxiety myself. This is a fine accomplishment of Trier's sci-fi concept, and while it doesn't have as much of a deep exploration of it's characters compared to Antichrist it truly examines human nature and fear.
Stay tuned for the next installment in a slightly different format... we'll talk about the last entry in this trilogy with another (mystery!) critic.