erik lundegaard


Melancholia (2011)


Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” didn’t make me melancholic but it did make me nauseous. I began to feel it halfway through the film, that awful shipboard unsteadiness, that burp that brings up more than a burp and has to be swallowed down and grimaced through, but I attributed it to the stomach flu going around, or some symptom of a thyroid problem I’ve been having lately, or maybe something I ate. Pho? Christmas cookies? Which of you betrayed me? It wasn’t until the next day, after reading the IMDb message board for the film, that I realized it was von Trier and his damned hand-held camera. Of course. Same thing happened to me while reviewing “Dancer in the Dark” in 2000. Douchebag. Get a fucking tripod.

“Melancholia” has two acts of destruction preceded by a beautiful overture of destruction. In part one, titled “Justine,” the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), at the palatial estate of Justine’s sister and brother-in-law, Claire and John (Charlottes Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland), is destroyed due to Justine’s melancholic tendencies. In the second part, (“Claire”), the earth is destroyed when a heretofore unseen planet named Melancholia crashes into us, and, as a young Alvy Singer once said, that’s the end of everything. The overture, backed by the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” contains beautiful, slow-motion, stop-action shots of the moment before our doom. None of them, interestingly, correlate to the reality of the second act. They’re just gorgeous dream images from a time when life existed.

So what do the two parts have in common other than character and setting? Is it that Justine’s melancholia is as unavoidable as the planet Melancholia? That all attempts to buck her up are as futile as, say, Claire’s desperate attempt to go into the village as Melancholia looms upon us? Is the second part, in other words, mere metaphor for the first? Or is it mere perspective for the first? “Mere” being the operative word.

The wedding reception begins sweetly. An absurdly long, absurdly white limousine attempts to park in a small space by the woods. Everyone gives it a go—inept driver, amused groom, laughing bride. When bride and groom finally show up at the estate, looking beautiful, they are chastised by two severe-looking people, Claire and John. One wonders who these people are and why they’re such a drag. Don’t you cut bride and groom slack on their wedding day? Isn’t this their day? Aren’t the rest of us poor background players to the main event, which is them?

Few at the reception see it this way. Her employer and his best man, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander’s father), who runs an ad company, attempts, right there at the wedding reception, in the middle of a toast, to get her to come up with a tagline for a new campaign, whose photo is based upon the awful, besotted folks in Bruegel’s painting “The Land of Cockaigne.” Her father, Dexter (John Hurt), with rakish charm, holds forth at a table full of “Bettys,” but allows an opening for the mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), to loudly express her distaste for what they’re there to celebrate: love and marriage. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” she toasts the handsome couple. “I myself hate marriages.”

(Irony alert: “Enjoy it while it lasts,” is the tagline for von Trier’s film.)

The groom, Michael, is a non-entity. He’s sweet but can’t hold up the weight of all the awfulness around him. Worse, he has no friends to protect him, just a silent mother and father. Many things are planned—by both the wedding planner (Udo Kier) and Claire (whom we discover, in the second act, has a desperate need to plan the inconsequential)—but Justine either avoids or sabotages these absurdities. Sweetness drains away. All the guests stand around waiting for the cutting of the wedding cake, but Justine is upstairs taking a bath. So is her mother in another room. John, who has paid for the entire affair, gets so frustrated he tosses the mother’s belongings out on the front steps, where they’re retrieved by a servant. Those who stay (the mother), shouldn’t; those who don’t stay (the father), should. Add the groom to the latter group. Justine avoids sex with him only to do it out on the estate grounds with a petty ad-agency functionary whom she despises, and suddenly he’s at the front door with the luggage and the parents. The end comes with neither bang nor whimper. “I guess we’ll take off now,” he says. “Things could’ve been a lot different,” he says. “But Michael,” she responds, “what did you expect?” She is who she is, her family is who they are, you can’t stop their trajectories. The destruction was inevitable. He leaves her, forlorn and beautiful, standing in her wedding dress. The evening is a total disaster.

In part two, we get the real disaster. A nearby planet hidden by the sun, and called Melancholia—possibly because of its tendency to avoid other planets—is, in its erratic orbit, supposed to pass close to Earth. It’s the astronomical/celestial event of the millennia, and John, at his palatial estate, is excited, but Claire is worried. He warns her to stay off the Internet, where worriers go to worry. Meanwhile, Justine, nearly catatonic with depression, shows up, sleeps for days, then can’t enjoy her favorite food. “It tastes like ashes,” she says of the meatloaf, before breaking down in tears.

Later, we get a better sense of the enormity of her melancholia. “The earth is evil,” she tells Justine, as she anticipates disaster. “We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” She’s convinced that we’re the only life that exists, and once we go, hallelujah. That’s her attitude. Consider it the opposite of the upbeat attitude of Selma (Bjork) in von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark.” For Selma, life is brutish and short yet she has a song in her heart. For Justine, life should be better, easier. She’s smart, with access to wealth, and she’s beautiful. (The movie is Rated “R” for “graphic nudity” but, for the scene with Dunst, please make that “stupendous nudity.”) She has all that but no song in her heart. Just ashes.

As Melancholia gets closer, John continues to get excited, Claire continues to fret, Justine wakes up. We’re stuck with the three of them—a sad fate—because von Trier never leaves the estate. Of course, it turns out that John and the scientists are wrong. Once he realizes it, confirms it, he takes the way out—barbiturates—that Claire prepped for herself, leaving her only fretting. Justine, meanwhile, is amazingly calm, perhaps because this is the ending she wanted or anticipated or is used to. Melancholia has crashed into her may times before, after all; now she simply has company. When the end finally comes, von Trier makes it beautiful. It’s the end of the world as we know it and he feels fine.

It’s tough to express final judgment on a movie responsible for literally making you sick, but here’s a go.

The two parts of “Melancholia” are interesting enough but they’re two still parts. If you’re creating a story about a disastrous wedding, why do a story about the end of the world as well? Perspective? And if you’re creating a story about the end of the world, why focus on this family? Metaphor?

I can posit connections between the two parts, in other words, but overall I feel a bit like Willard confronting Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”: I don’t see much ... connection at all, sir.

—December 19, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard