Melancholia: meditation on depression and cosmic indifference to humanity waylaid by emphasis on shallow characters

Lars von Trier, “Melancholia” (2011)

Fed up with the deadbeat rate of intellectual and cultural evolution that the human species was demonstrating on planet Earth, the evil reptiloid aliens in the star system located deep in the constellation of Scorpius petitioned with one million collected signatures the relevant Imperial Herpetilian Department of Interstellar Interventions to wack one of their home galaxy planets onto a collision course with Earth and remove the bugger so a new little planet could be placed in our solar system and the whole story of life could start all over again without any mistakes like intelligent life forming by accident. OK this isn’t mentioned anywhere in Lars von Trier’s meditation on depression, “Melancholia”, his beautifully realised contribution to the sci-fi apocalyptic fantasy / black comedy / Romantic arthouse movie genre. The film continues ideas from “Antichrist” concerning the nature of the universe and humankind’s insignificance within an indifferent and even hostile cosmos: all the knowledge, science and religious faith we can muster won’t help us solve our own problems and certainly won’t help us survive a collision with a stray extra-solar planet. The only thing we can do is face the certainty of annihilation with the serene and passive calmness born of depression and lack of hope: a pretty despairing message, yes, but one that’s perhaps more reasonable than trusting in a non-existent God or belief systems that so far haven’t delivered on their promises of benefitting humans across the Earth.

I saw this film at the Dendy cinema in Newtown where I was unpleasantly treated to the trailer to “The Iron Lady”, a horror film starring Meryl Streep as the eponymous self-made Frankenstein monster. After this torture (the trailer reduced a male Sydney Morning Herald reader to uncontrolled weeping at the memory of living through the 1980s in the UK), anything will come as welcome relief and “Melancholia” does not disappoint. Eight minutes of silent slow-motion visual beauty in which the film’s main characters and motifs appear in haunted nature tableaux to the music of Richard Wagner’s prelude to  the opera “Tristan und Isolde” form the extended introduction. (The music repeats throughout the film to overwrought drama-queen effect.) Allowing for possible inaccuracies and bad science in the collision scene creation – after all, no-one’s ever witnessed anything the same or similar and lived to tell the tale – I find this perhaps the most gorgeous and poetic summation of the film’s concerns.

What follows after is pretty much a footnote character study of two sisters and how they cope with life generally and the knowledge that everything that’s hit them before which they survived won’t help in a Final Judgement. The first half of “Melancholia”, labelled “Justine”, follows bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and new hubby Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) as they arrive a little too fashionably late for their reception thrown by Justine’s sister Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). The reception lasts most of the day and well into the night but it’s not a happy one: Justine’s estranged Mum and Dad  (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) disgrace themselves; Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) trails her for advertising copy; and John whines constantly about how much money the reception is costing him and Justine had better be happy and grateful for the generosity. Justine becomes depressed: her parents fail to show any sympathy but remain self-obsessed, her boss attempts to manipulate her and corporate invertebrate Michael shows no indication of being able to understand Justine and her problem family. By the end of the evening and the dawn of a new day, Justine has told off her boss for the prick he is and her parents and new husband have abandoned her.

In the second half, titled “Clare”, the film targets Clare and John in their reaction to the news of the looming collision between Earth and Melancholia. Justine has descended into full-blown depression. Although John attempts to protect Clare and their son (Cameron Spurr) from the dreadful news about Melancholia, he ends up giving in to despair. Justine accepts the news of Earth’s demise with calm and serenity and Clare bounces from helplessness to headless-chook panic and action to fruitless religious “ritual”.

Apart from Justine herself, delivered by Dunst in a sterling performance in which her blank face masks a million-and-one emotions and thoughts, the acting tends to be cardboard cut-out cartoonish. Rampling redefines snarling bitterness and sarcasm, Hurt sleepwalks through his role as feckless womaniser and Sutherland’s character is a mere whingeing rich-boy incapable of having a decent civilised conversation with his wife or sister-in-law. Gainsbourg, looking gaunt and nervy, nails the panicky sister down pat. The cinematography, jumpy and amateurish in the style of a home videorecording, throws viewers’ attention onto the to-ings and fro-ings of the characters as they grapple with belief and faith in science and the reality of what’s happening in the sky. It might be said that the choice of filming style is unfortunate for the subject matter and is ultimately the film’s downfall: the camera really should have kept still most of the time and all the characters portrayed in a remote way as though in a diorama setting that shows off Clare and John’s palatial home and the surrounding forests and other greenery. Clare and John would then be seen as symbols of a helpless hysterical elite that has no more idea about how to deal with global crises than we plebeians do. As it is, we lose sight of what “Melancholia” is really telling us about human society and its self-centredness in a world and universe that demand our attention more than ever, and the film becomes a fussy study of shallow rich people. Depression becomes one character’s way of realising that humankind lives in fantasy la-la-land where having a dream job, a dream spouse and a dream family and home turn out to be unfulfilling and oppressive; depression becomes an escape and a form of freedom.

I did not find “Melancholia” at all depressing or pessimistic and there are actually frequent moments of deep black humour throughout the film. The look is beautiful and the themes are deep and worthy of attention; shame that the film is not tighter in its narrative and the camera style is completely wrong for the film’s subject and themes. The science could have been a lot better: where are the earthquakes, over-blowing volcanoes and tsunamis that should have been the result of the intense gravitational attractions, what happened to the atmosphere burning up as the planet Melancholia draws near, does Earth or the Moon get knocked out of its trajectory around the Sun, what about all the conservative politicians and the geologists and engineers in the pay of mining companies trying to convince all and sundry that Melancholia doesn’t exist or won’t endanger Earth even though the evidence is 99.9% against them? I suppose though, as John says in the film, we should allow for a margin of error.





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