I went to see Melancholia last night. What follows contains ample spoilers.
Melancholia is billed as ‘a beautiful film about the end of the world’. Its opening sequence admittedly contains some ravishing and manipulative dreamscape tableaux: birds fall in slowmo from a hyperreal sky, electricity courses from the fingertips of hands raised to the universe in offering, a bride floats like Ophelia in a river. Add to that the overture from Tristan and Isolde cranked up to the max, and, for a moment, the disarmed viewer may be fooled into thinking that what will follow will be something of substance and great artistic commitment. But this opener is really nothing more than a money shot, a premature ejaculation – exploiting our tendency to fall for the bait and switch. It’s an abuse of the cinematic contract.
‘Part 1: Justine’ has drawn unfavourable comparisons with Festen. That criticism seems somewhat unfair. Much of the tone appears to me to be borrowed, instead, from the marvellous and underseen Rachel Getting Married. But this latter film, with its intelligent and unstinting exploration of the seething hatred and passion within family life and its study of a personality in crisis, should have been enough to discourage von Trier in his attempts. If, indeed, he has seen it at all. For, unlike most great directors, von Trier seems to me to be anything but a cineaste.
Justine (Dunst) is, on the face of it, as we watch her and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) giggle in the back of their limo, an uncomplicated and beautiful bride. In a clunking metaphor for life, their gigantic white limo cannot negotiate the slender and steep incline of the dust road that will take them to their wedding reception at her sister’s house. After many comical attempts at manoeuvring, they abandon the car and walk the road. Dunst, appearing bare foot at the venue, is roundly dressed down by her sister Claire (Gainsbourg), an apparent control freak who doesn’t even bother to enquire what has happened to the couple. It is the first indication the viewer gets that Dunst is somehow trouble, and apparently a victim of circumstance with whom the viewer, at least, should side.
What follows amounts to perhaps the most boring wedding ever to be committed to any film I’ve seen. The cliches, and their offensiveness and triteness, come in short order: the loveable, but roguish father (Hurt) and the gimlet-eyed, toxic bitch-mother (Rampling), now divorced and simmering in their bile; the portrait of Claire, whose normalcy is really a cover for her neurosis; the long-suffering brother-in-law, John (Sutherland), who appears to hold everyone in contempt; the sweet little nephew who seems to be the only person Justine can reach out to. Unpleasant speeches are given.
Justine keeps disappearing from the proceedings. First for a cruise around the estate in a golf buggy. Then for a pee on the golf course. (She’s sad, sad, sad.) Then for a heart-to-heart with her new husband who shows her a picture of a young apple orchard he’s bought for them. (She’s sad, sad, sad.) He tells her that when the trees are matured, he’ll sit her under them. Maybe he’ll build her a swing, too. No wonder she’s depressed. ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens,’ she tells him. Smart move. For, perhaps a moment too late, she seems to have realised that the two of them don’t appear to belong in the same film. Things roll on. And on. She takes a long bath. She’s back to cut the cake. Floating lanterns celebrating the young couple are sent out to the sky. Eventually, Justine’s back on the golf course again – it’s a magnetic pull for her, clearly. She’s followed out by a new recruit to her advertising firm. His pursuit of her is a piece of pointless plotting that is not worth the outlining, save for the fact that it allows the hypocritical von Trier to insult the advertising industry which he has exploited to his great service time and again. Anyhow, back to this recruit. Justine throws him down to the ground. She mounts him and, enthusiastically, the two copulate. Off she goes, back to the house to moon over her onion soup and tell her boss (Stellan Skarsgaard) how much she utterly despises him. Shortly before dawn, her new husband, rather discomforted that Justine is underwhelmed by his apples, tells her he’s off. And, just like that, the longest and shortest marriage in modern cinema is over.
Then we’re on to ‘Part 2: Claire’. (Are you still with me?) Now we see things from Claire’s perspective. And mostly we see them from the house’s terrace. But they are not much different. Time has elapsed. Justine has had a nervous breakdown. She is deeply depressed. We know this because she’s chopped her long locks into a bob, won’t bathe and declares that Claire’s meatloaf ‘tastes like ashes’. A planet is on its way in a fly-by – Melancholia – that has been hiding behind the sun. It’s been hiding a long time. Father and son are excited about it. But Claire gets anxious about the planet. Despite her husband’s assurances, she wonders whether it might actually collide with earth. Living in a world where there appears to be no TV or Radio, she is forced to look it up online. On a computer that looks rather like an Amstrad. And on a very early internet. While Claire is surfing and quietly freaking out (she stops washing her hair), Justine is perking up considerably. She begins making appearances on the terrace in cut-off jeans and sexy casual tops; she wanders off, naked, in the middle of the night to lie down on some rocks and circle one areola, basking in the blue glow of Melancholia. This is just one of the more tasteless and leering moments dressed up as credibility in the film, which also uses a depressive’s resistance to being bathed to score von Trier a lingering shot of Dunst’s breasts. Did Dunst think this was art?
The fly-by happens. The earth is still here. Claire’s relieved. But watch out! It’s behind you! And it’s coming back! We discover this in an unintentionally laugh-out-loud moment, articulated by Sutherland’s facial expression with all the subtlety of a Covent Garden mime artist. His certainty and rationality in tatters, he takes Claire’s stash of ‘suicide’ pills, and goes off to die in the stables. Claire is remarkably calm when she discovers him. She covers him with straw and goes back to – where else? – the terrace. High Priestess Bore Justine lectures the now broken Claire, both of them mostly ignoring Claire’s young son. ‘Life is only on earth – and not for long’; ‘The earth is evil – no one will miss it.’ On and on she goes. Claire wonders what might be the right way to meet the end of the world. A glass of wine on the terrace, she suggests. But Justine is having none of it. Instead, she spends her last hours building a wigwam. Without a canvas. The trio sit in it and hold hands, as the CGI comes rolling towards them. The End.
This is not a beautiful film about the end of the world. It’s an ugly, nasty film. It’s filmmaking of the most juvenile kind possible. It’s indulgence at the highest level. Von Trier has spoken openly about his battles with depression. Let’s be clear: this film celebrates the condition of the depressive. It’s an insult to anyone who has endured the bite of the black dog. It seems to suggest, even to the extent of endowing Justine with psychic powers, that depressives are special, an elect. It claims that depression is empowering. It says that depression is good and real. It glorifies the type of oblivion that most of us left behind long ago in our teenage room. But the problem is more than that. I don’t believe for one moment von Trier believes any of it. He’s making films, after all.
The dishonesty doesn’t stop there, either. When Kubrick took Strauss’s Blue Danube for 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Visconti took Mahler’s Adagettio from his Fifth Symphony for Death in Venice, there was a sense of artists meeting across time, enriching and enhancing each other. A relationship. When von Trier takes one of the most beautiful pieces in the history of western music, ripe for the cinematic picking – the overture from Tristan and Isolde – he does so to lend ballast to his lightweight efforts. He uses – and abuses – Wagner to distract us from the pretentious emo twaddle he’s dishing out. He gives us art, all right. But it’s not his to take.