There are no guns in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. There are no tanks, or nuclear bombs – just humans, and their immaterial battle for life. It seems befitting that a film exploring isolation, internal darkness and the weighted feeling of not belonging in the world would be bracketed within a story about the end of it. A disaster film that takes mental illness head on? Or a film about mental illness set under the pretence of imminent disaster? I’ll stand by either contention, especially when the film in question is Melancholia, crafted by the controversial director Lars von Trier. Preceded by his 2009 film Antichrist, Melancholia is his second unofficial entry into what could likely become his trilogy of “Grief, Pain, and Despair”. Stemming from the director’s own battle with a deep depression Antichrist and Melancholia share a lifeline that seeks to excavate the profound, the difficult, and the complexities of human suffering as related to psychosis.
As similarly executed in Antichrist, the prelude to Melancholia is bathed in cinematic eloquence, forming the summation of the events about to transpire as well as the link to the subconscious of the film. Comprising the first 8 minutes, each sequence presents slow motion images of agony, beauty, and symmetry, all contained within a suffocating stillness. Lush and luxurious greens are juxtaposed against what resembles a world without oxygen. Extended over the soundtrack to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde III, this is Lars von Trier at his best.
Countering the baroque introduction is the banality of the first scene where we meet the main character Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who is stuck in a limo on the way to her wedding reception. It is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, at least, that is what everyone around her wants it to be. Set against the macro destruction of the world at the hand of blue planet Melancholia, the micro struggle of Justine occupies the first half of the film building the case for von Trier as a sensitive filmmaker intent on justifying emotional disorder. As Justine trudges through her wedding night, much to the chagrin of her whole family, her polarity between delicious highs and devastating lows sheds a realistic light on a woman coming undone. Shot predominantly in a handheld style, von Trier embodies in Justine the emotional, physical and social facets of self-destruction. Justine’s sorrow is inferred through everyone else’s insensitivity towards it. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsburg) is her only support.
Melancholia’s duality comes into effect in part two: Claire’s half of the film. The disintegration of Justine’s mind is halted and the power struggle shifts as catastrophe draws near. She grows stronger and Claire tumbles into a frantic state. Where the former has faced death, the latter is only just meeting it. Gainsbourg, who was the tour de force in Antichrist, brings an innocence to Claire as the helpless and naïve caregiver who seeks a “nice” ending to the planet’s explosion. Awarded the Best Actress prize at Cannes, Dunst’s performance here as the transformative weak and dependant patient to authoritative and almighty savant is a testament to the film’s power. The path of destruction for all of human kind is Justine’s saving grace, as von Trier uses the approaching Melancholia to repair her fractured state.
Von Trier who was accused of misogynist filmmaking with Antichrist, has done the contrary here. In Melancholia it is the female characters that demonstrate courage and emotional strength in the face of adversity. And when that adversity is the end of the world, I can only trust that he believes we can handle it.