As Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier would have it, there is little more maddening than a depressive in one’s care. The lachrymose lump under the covers, the dead-eyed gaze at dawn, the obstinacy—almost pleasurable, it can seem—in clinging to suffering. Nothing is worse than taking care of such a person, perhaps, except being the depressive herself, lost in a scratchy fog of sadness and anxiety punctuated only by guilt and the unanswerable, unrelenting question: Why can’t you be happy?
Von Trier’s response: Because the world is coming to an end. In Melancholia, the director has made his version of a zombie apocalypse film, with Kirsten Dunst as the living dead. I don't mean to be flippant, really, as the thing is deadly serious when it’s not pitched for perverse laughs—an operatic three-parter that focuses on two sisters as they grapple with the end of the world.
The film is stunning—if you go in for the director’s brand of cinematic sadomasochism. Reviled for what many perceive to be a misogynistic bent, von Trier puts his female characters through the wringer, be it by burnishing their sainthood through sexual degradation (Breaking the Waves), condemning them to an unjust death (Dancer in the Dark), or banishing them to a Fury’s madness (Antichrist). It’s easy to miss the possibility that von Trier is depicting his own well-documented breakdown and lifelong struggles with depression, from which he has only started to emerge. Audiences are more likely distracted by his enfant-terrible utterances (see the Nazi-inflected ramblings that got him censured at Cannes) and his cruel treatment of actors and audiences alike. Melancholia is no exception to von Trier’s sadistic rule. Even though there’s no blood rage or shrieking this time, the director clearly found another way to channel his own anguish when he cast Dunst, frighteningly good in this role, as Justine, the prophet of doom.
Auteurist explanations aside, von Trier’s latest is a masterwork—the notoriously inexpressible state of depression made manifest. In keeping with his devotion to all things operatic, von Trier begins his film with an overture of staggering, awful beauty. Over the strains of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Justine appears in close-up, slowly opening her eyes as birds fall out of the sky around her. The real world is a dream, it seems, and the only thing that will wake her is its destruction, captured in her fevered imaginings of the apocalypse: Justine in a bridal gown, struggling forward as gray tendrils pull at her legs, then adrift in the water, Millais’s drowned Ophelia.
The prologue showcases von Trier at his best, melding formalism to high dramatics. So how does one respond to this vision of end times? By giggling, of course. Critics’ screenings are usually moribund affairs, but a von Trier film will break the pall like nothing else. One pivotal scene in Antichrist—in which a mangled fox, gnawing at its entrails, turns to a soon-to-be mangled Willem Dafoe and intones in its best James Earl Jones voice: “Chaos reigns” (scroll down to see it immortalized on these film-nerd T-shirts)—unleashed a hootenanny of braying and knee-slapping more commonly heard during an episode of Hee-Haw. Oh no, he di’nt, I caught myself shouting, but oh yes, von Trier had.
With his nasty humor, his whiplashing between sarcasm and sincerity, and the torturous visions on screen, von Trier leaves a viewer with little idea of what to do, save pant with anxiety or titter nervously. After cackling through Melancholia’s bravura prologue, though, the audience settled into von Trier’s tale of two sisters, painted as two halves of a psychological and metaphysical whole. The first half of the film focuses in on Justine's ghastly wedding day, and the second on the sensible Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a wonderfully sensitive performance) as she faces the destruction of the earth. In this dual disaster flick, Melancholia is not only a description of Justine’s state of mind—it’s also a planet now on a collision course with Earth. This is no spoiler, as the prologue makes clear. The film’s charm, if you want to call it that, is that death has been foretold, and we’re along for the final countdown.
At first, Justine and her hapless groom (Alexander Skarsgård) seem on a lark, giggling that they are two hours late to the wedding hosted by Claire and her pompous wag of a husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland, as professionally clenched as ever), because their rented stretch limo can’t make it up the country road to John’s estate. This innocent beginning soon tips into outright chaos, with the wedding guests putting on a parade of bad manners—boorish and preening, or spitting out a wedding toast that seems to sum up the film’s message: Enjoy it while you can.
Who could hold it together in such circumstances? Certainly not Justine, whose inner despair has a creamy voluptuousness to it, a seductive grip on her she can’t break. After she capitulates to her crack-up, Justine can’t resist the urge to set the wedding’s empty rituals ablaze, to her sister’s dismay. Von Trier’s films are experiential ones—while Melancholia’s counterpart, Antichrist puts its audience through the screaming hell inside its female character’s mind, Melancholia inspires the helpless rage that those hollowed out by depression can transfer to those who care for them. When Claire, surveying the wedding’s wreckage, hisses to her sister, “Sometimes I hate you so much,” one can’t help but feel a frisson of Claire’s fury.
Until von Trier effects a role reversal of sorts. Part two, named after Claire, plays like a syrupy nightmare where everything moves at half-speed but inspires twice the panic. Melancholia in the form of a glassy-eyed, whimpering Justine has moved into the castle post-wedding fiasco; the planet Melancholia draws ever closer to the earth. The nearer Earth’s doom comes, however, the more perversely calm Justine gets, even as Claire finds herself clinging to life and the niceties that give her some sense of order. Claire’s husband John is an amateur astronomer—he attempts to reassure Claire and their young son with scientific certainties, blissfully unaware that he is in a von Trier film and that men espousing logical platitudes inevitably come to an inelegant end. In this film, told from Justine’s (and perhaps von Trier’s) worldview, there is no truth but impending catastrophe, and no end more gratifying than death. As Melancholia looms in the night sky, Justine strips down and basks in its light, as though she is readying herself for a lover.
She is, in a way. It’s no mistake that von Trier has scored his film to Tristan und Isolde, that epic paean of longing for a love as deep as death. In the first frames, Justine opens her eyes just as the famed “Tristan chord” sounds, a torturous bit of harmonic limbo that doesn’t reach resolution until Isolde sings out her death five hours later—that chord an endless suspension that mirrors Justine’s long wait for external reality to consummate her most disastrous desires. But in the end, the fact that her annihilation could consume even the innocent brings out compassion in Justine, and she attempts to cast a spell of magical thinking around her beloved nephew and her terrified sister. In depicting that futile, loving act, the film becomes a rebuttal to its own prevailing narrative of despair—for what is any great work of art but a brave whistle in the dark? That the two sisters—one embodying the desire for death, the other facing the death of desire—should be together in their final moments … what is that but a happy ending?