Melancholia is Lars Von Trier’s conflicted ode to German Romanticism, Wagner, Depression and life itself. It starts off with one of the most beautiful openings of any movie I’ve seen in recent times, with Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde merging with stunning, slow motion images. They look like paintings come to life, moving incredibly slowly, awakening to new shocks, new horrors.
The beginning prefigures the end beyond the usual trajectory of Hollywood films. It in fact gives away that ending in the first few minutes. But we don’t care. Because the journey is everything, and we don’t even mind that this is a cliché. Coming full circle seems poetic and right, and circles dominate the night and day skies. We don’t feel cheated, even after an apocalypse.
The movie is told in two parts after the intro, matching planet with planet, sister with sister. Their collision creates subtle, dark drama. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, has just gotten married but is hours late for the reception hosted by her sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Claire lives with her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), in a castle by the sea, filled with the trappings of great wealth on display. We do not know the country of origin or the place, but everyone speaks English, and speaks of American things like marketing, and the castle is situated on their eighteen-hole golf course.
(The film was shot primarily in Sweden. It is a Swedish castle, and it reminded me of the setting for Last Year in Marienbad, with its vanishing-point look across the gardens, the perfect symmetry, the angles, the geometry, the juxtapositions of humans and artificial nature …)
Justine has acute depression, and may well have an unmanageably manic side to her illness. She takes out her manic side on people and horses, cuckholding her husband on their wedding night, and later whipping a horse who will not cross a bridge when they come to it. Kirsten Dunst’s peformance here is revelatory, especially when we look back upon her career. We are not ready for the look in her eyes, the enervation of face and body, the collapsed spirit, or the strange recollection of strength at the end when others fail around her. Her section of the story is swifter, more engaging, as is her personality. A rare feat, for a depressive.
Claire, on the other hand, is supposed to be the mature one, the collected and calm one, married, established, often caring for her damaged and unpredictable sister. But her section of the film is strangely minimalist in texture and numbers, shrinking down to just three characters for most of it: Justine, Claire, and her son, Leo. It does not engage us in the way the first section does. But its minimalist take is necessary for the task at hand. How do we live our last moments? What do we do? How do we make peace with the unstoppable?
Lars Von Trier has admitted to being a source for his character, Justine. His own bouts with severe depression are expressed in scenes like the one in which Claire tries to help Justine into the bathtub. Justine lacks the energy, the will, the strength to get her naked body into the tub, and Claire lacks the strength to get her over the rim. Von Trier’s wife was Claire at times. In a sense, Von Trier, with this movie, makes it over that rim and becomes both Claire and Justine.
It’s a beautiful, provocative, slightly flawed masterpiece.