Don’t worry, it’s only the end of the world

Most of us would hate to learn Earth is on a collision course with a rogue planet, but to von Trier, that’s just what the human race needs.

By Philip Ehrenberg

Lars von Trier is hardly one to shy away from spectacle. Take his recent film Antichrist (2009), an erotic and gory spectacle that received not a few claims of blatant misogyny, or the press conference at Cannes earlier this year when von Trier declared his sympathy for the Nazis, much to the chagrin of a humiliated Kirsten Dunst at this side.

So it’s no surprise that spectacle is at the forefront of his latest film, Melancholia. Interested in the way depression affects people in particular situations, von Trier decides to hurl a whole planet (named, of course, Melancholia) at the Earth and see how two sisters decide to handle the crisis.

The resulting film is mystifying and oftentimes heavy-handed, leaving viewers trying to riddle out the significance of various shots and scenes. The main problem is that it’s impossible to tell if the film’s impenetrability is because it deserves a very deep, critical look, or because it’s unnecessarily obtuse. However, despite all of this confusion, as well as some elements of von Trier’s misanthropy seeping through, there is something absolutely stunning and beautiful about the movie that demands more attention.

The film opens with a montage of slowed, dreamlike sequences, mostly involving one of the sisters, Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst with extraordinary subtlety), or nature gone haywire—think birds falling from the sky or lightning bursting from fingertips. They are captivating yet somewhat pointless, an apparent flexing of von Trier’s creative muscle that doesn’t have much bearing on the rest of the film. He definitively shows us Earth’s fate in the first five minutes and gets this montage out of his system so both he and the audience can then focus on the sisters.

The film is split into two very distinct parts, the first taking place on Justine’s wedding night, held at the ornate, castle-like home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). It quickly becomes clear that there is more wrong here than just typical wedding troubles—the parents of the bride battle in a toast (tossing in some dialogue about the pointlessness of marriage for good measure), but Justine’s response is one of apathy; she languishes in a bath looking solemn when she should be cutting the cake.

The focus is definitely on Justine’s depression, but it’s hard to make sense of. It’s tempting to merely attribute it to the loss of her autonomy as a top-notch marketing copywriter now that she’s married, but that seems to be an oversimplification. Knowing what we know about Earth’s fate, others may want to say that Justine has some way of sensing a literal cataclysm is coming—von Trier certainly presents this as a viable option later on—but it all feels like a red herring.

In fact, it gets hard to know what is and isn’t a red herring in this movie, even once we’ve reached the end. There’s something about the wedding party that is divorced from the rest of the film; it seems at times like mere character development, but it plays out for so long that this reading seems unfair. However, the connections we may draw between it and the second part—which focuses on the other sister, Claire, and in which Melancholia is prominent in the sky—are never concrete enough to satisfy.

Seemingly important themes are repeated over and over again so many times that they lose force. Meanwhile, images that appear more trivial linger and are referred to with enough subtlety that we’re left wondering just what the film is trying to say.

Despite an inclination to shrug off the movie as a hodgepodge of conflicts that never fully cohere, there is something keeping it from falling apart completely. It’s clear that von Trier doesn’t care about astrophysics and the likelihood of his scenario. We may not entirely understand the emotional worlds of the sisters he has conceived and their irrationality, but when is melancholy ever rational? Their descent into (or in some cases, ascent from) utter apathy comes across as compelling, although it’s impossible to say why, exactly.

The film isn’t poorly executed; it’s just executed in a way that many will find unappealing. We might be inclined to empathize with the characters, but von Trier would prefer us to laugh at them. Therein may lay the problem: Most of us would hate to learn Earth is on a collision course with a rogue planet, but to von Trier, that’s just what the human race needs.