On her lavish wedding day to bashful Michael (Alexander Sarskård), Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is struggling to feel motivated about her nuptials, her future, or the very ritual of living. Her attentive sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) guides her gently through a string of bridal customs amid a surreal ensemble of guests whose cacophony of foibles include bitterness, pretence, vapidity and melodrama. This night is as doomed as another the pair spend together weeks later in the same idyllic seaside estate, after Justine’s depression has deepened and the once-hidden planet Melancholia has loomed into visibility, drifting silently by the Earth.
Melancholia is an entropic narrative progression, a film adorned with beauty and visual spectacle (a triumph in and of itself). It’s a tightly written film with a strong relationship to ancient mythology, classical beauty and the human practise of conjecturing on the future. Von Trier has with Melancholia made a magnum vanitas work (an art history term referring to the genre of still life painting which juxtaposes images of luxury, youth and sensuality with those of decay and death in order to warn the vain or unthinking that mortality must come to us all). Justine is Von Trier’s ultimate motif in this momento mori picture, a luminescent body sculpted in femininity and bridal white, yet hollowed and haunted by despondency.
This relationship between death and beauty is ancient and recurring, having become part of both religious and scientific wonder equally. What I mean is, anything beautiful is by necessity finite, ephemeral, or simply doomed to change. It is the destruction of all things by erasure or transformation that reveals perfection, just as endurance results in disregard and boredom. Therefore one moment of beauty can only exist instantaneously, a decaying version of itself, perhaps left in human memory. Beauty, sadness and humanity seem to be tragically interlinked this way.
Melancholia is formed of three parts. First, the title sequence: an almighty montage of slow motion, high-resolution scenes that foreshadow the coming film. They have an elite fashion photography flavour in their slickness, lighting and glamorisation of disaster. Part One: Justine tells the story of the bride’s fear at the precipice of the rest of her life and Part Two: Claire of Claire’s fear at the precipice of Melancholia’s approach towards Earth.
I do hate to say this, but I found Part One dizzying. Perhaps it was a combination of not having eaten and an out-dated optical prescription, but I had to close my eyes intermittently to keep my hand-held camera blues at bay. One could easily ascribe this effect to some mimicry of Justine’s struggle through the haze of depression, or a reflection on her haywire personality, but I hesitate to link Von Trier to either such amateurish excuses. Rather, and sadly, it was a little too shaky for me.
The hotel grounds in which the entirety Melancholia is set are a sprawling idyll of incredible beauty, a perfect Arcadian blend of wilderness and artifice, overflowing with references to classical painting. It’s a dioramic Eden, an allegory for the whole of humanity, containing a man, wife, child (Claire, John, Leo), and the spectre of death (Justine). Its sprawling grassy terrace is a custom-built viewing platform upon which to witness the cataclysm of worlds. The film is threaded together by a grave reprieve from Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan Und Isolde, a shimmering lament whose duty in the original opera was to foreshadow romantic tragedy, or liebestod (‘love death’). The piece is enriching without being overwhelmingly emotional, as grandiose orchestral scores, often independently of the film, can be.
There are innumerable references to great artworks littered throughout Melancholia. Among them, John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, which depicts the unravelled female allowing her body to succumb to madness and nature; The Greek goddess Diana bathing in a stream, her erotic, lunar paleness glimpsed timidly by the hunter Acteon; The moonlight paintings of Turner; the shimmering seas and precipices of Caspar David Friedrich. All these seem to claim that true art exists in situ and not on canvas, negating the idea of literary or artistic posterity. Indeed, contrary to the historical immortality great men aspire to, Melancholia presents an antithesis to the dystopia we humans love to fantasise about. There is no pandemic, nuclear fallout, or death on a pale horse. The Earth is simply gone, along with its history, and its self-declared universal significance. This is a stunning way in which to describe the impermanence that is often so hard to grasp during the solidity of day-to-day routine.
Melancholia seems truly to address inevitability in a different way to other films dealing with oncoming mortality, such as this year’s elegant Take Shelter, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Road or Bergman masterpiece The Seventh Seal. It lacks any hint of hope begot by the unpredictability or mystical nature of the universe. Though it might not feel like it, Melancholia is a highly empirical film, grounded in fact, science, and reality. Not even Justine’s third-act revelation that she is tuned into the cosmos in some supernatural way provides respite from the oncoming planet. It is in hoodwinking the young Leo (Cameron Spurr) into believing in a magical cave that the devastating absence of miracle in the world is laid bare. In this, Melancholia deems the protection of his innocence as instinctual and tacit behaviour. Though Justine is entrenched in morbidity, she nonetheless spares her nephew the trauma of mortal knowledge, regardless of the fact that the boy will barely live long enough to experience that trauma.
When the symptomatic suspicion of clinical depression – ‘what is the point?’ – is confirmed, what then? How does one prepare for the relentless approach of the end of all things? Surely some kind of ceremony is in order. What spiritual guide contains the ritual we must solemnly observe on the last of days? Perhaps, like Christmas, this is a time to be spent with loved ones. Should we feast? Kill ourselves? Does it matter? Claire’s idea of an apocalypse met with wine, hands held and high classical symphonic fanfare is one that seems almost natural given man’s predisposition towards ceremony. It’s an artful response, one that helps to ascribe significance to the event. This might be like holding your own funeral before you die, as nobody will mark your passing. In her advanced state of depression, Justine chides her sister’s attempt at giving formality to the end of the world. Her unnatural ungratefulness over her own wedding in Part One may have already switched off audience empathy over Justine’s death, but does she have a point? It’s worth considering.
Whilst there has been much said about the relationship between Melancholia and Lars Von Trier’s own gripping listlessness, the film comes at a poignant time. Piety is waning in the West, while the universal landscape is further mapped. The once-rapid evolution of space travel and extra-terrestrial Imperialism has slowed to a crawl at about the same time that the reality of Earth’s limited resources has finally hit home. Yet of all the calamitous threats in the world, celestial collision is one of the easiest to put out of mind. The stars twinkle pictorially, as much a part of fictional pantheons, mythical constellations and heavenly firmaments as ever; the Sun and Moon are reduced to reliable aerial symbols, infographics that mark the time of day. Melancholia peels away this fictive veil, again revealing the perils of the universe.
In his lecture series Death, Yale professor and extraordinary exponent of the theory of mortality Shelly Kagan explains that the problem with trying to conceive of your own death is that it’s almost impossible not to accidentally place yourself in the picture. If somebody says to you “imagine you are dead”, you will visualise being in a coffin, spying on your own funeral or an aerial perspective of an Earth you aren’t walking on. Either way you’re involved. Melancholia goes some way to sidestepping this phenomenon, as it is the whole of the Earth dying. There is nothing to imagine – there is nothing to imagine.
Perhaps my own greatest fear, on the last day of all life, would be to feel (like Justine) so disconnected from the significance of the event, as to be unable to fully and completely understand, see and feel my oncoming death; To disintegrate mid-blink whilst trying to look death in the face.