MELANCHOLIA. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt. Directed by Lars von Trier.136 minutes. Rated M (Sexual references, nudity and coarse language).
At one point, director Lars von Trier focuses on a dictionary and the various meanings of melancholia. Already we have seen a pensive, inward-looking bride which suggests the melancholic mental disposition and its emotions. But, we soon learn that a planet veering towards earth, with the potential to destroy and consume it, is also called Melancholia.
Everyone, whether they ultimately like the film or not, will be very impressed by the opening sequences. They consist of a collage of evocative images, contemplative as well as action-oriented: the focus on the bride, birds mysteriously falling from the sky, horses falling and dying, a distant scene of a mother playing with her son, the approach of the planet towards earth. For those who have seen The Tree of Life, it is not difficult to begin making comparisons.
The comparisons can go further. Those who like both films have been enraptured by the visual beauty of each film with the evocation of something transcendent. One reviewer noted that she left the theatre in ecstasy. Those who did not warm to the films and their craft and beauty probably wanted something more behind the images, even more questions rather than answers. Obviously, the films are poetic and demand a poetic response, but there can be more hints or clues or suggestions for meaning.
A case in point is the broadly religious meaning. The Tree of Life offers an image of life after death, bleak as it may be, though family-oriented. In Melancholia, there is a strong family orientation but no religious dimension, nothing transcendent except the nobility of human (flawed) nature.
This is also a film about two sisters, made clear by the nomination of Part I and Part II.
The first sister is the younger, Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. She is the glimpsed bride in the prologue. Part I is a portrait of her wedding, beginning with a long limousine unable to get through narrow country roads and the couple being late for the celebration. To the anxiety of the older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland). Initially, playful, Justine begins to act erratically (understatement) to the growing bewilderment of her gracious husband (Alexander Skarsgaard). Among the guests are the bon-vivant father (John Hurt) and his acidic ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling) and Justine’s employer (Stellan Skarsgaard). Enough enigmatic events occur which make us wonder about Justine, her state of mind and her future. As a visual and dramatic exploration of a disturbed character, the film is sometimes masterly.
Part II is not exactly a portrait of Claire because Justine is still to the forefront of the picture. Justine is in Claire’s care as she suffers from depression. There is a love-hate relationship between the two. It is mostly hate on the part of Claire’s husband. But their son is attached to his aunt. Claire is not only preoccupied with coping with Justine but she grows more and more afraid that the planet is moving dangerously towards earth. Her husband reassures her. However, as the planet nears, she goes into panic mode while Justine seems calmer, a touch fatalistic. How will they deal with imminent destruction without any resources except themselves, no transcendent hope?
Von Trier has chosen to confine all the action to the mansion that serves as a hotel for a golf course for the wealthy. Apart from the wedding guests and the staff, there is no actual contact with the outer world. Media contact is through the internet. So, this isolated group serves as a microsmic metaphor for macrocosmic events. In terms of realism, it doesn’t really work, so the audience is asked to suspend disbelief and focus on the symbolic few. Easy for those who are absorbed. Not easy for those not persuaded by the premiss.
Which means, as with all von Trier’s films, that there are contradictory opinions, enthusiasm and hostility or, as one unsympathetic reviewer remarked, he was indifferent. Whatever one’s response, von Trier makes distinctive films.
[The small budget American film, Another Earth, was released about the same time as Melancholia. There are similarities in plot concerning a new planet and its relationship to Earth, but quite a difference in outlook between the two films.]
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 15, 2011.