Revealing the end is not something most of us would consider doing in a movie, especially one about the end of the world. But that is exactly what Lars von Trier does in Melancholia, and very consciously at that. The film opens with a series of slow-motion images chronicling Earth’s last moments: a bride floating down a stream, a mother carrying her child, two planets at the moment of collision. Not wanting his audience to be distracted from the central drama, von Trier dispels the suspense by establishing the end at the beginning.
I’m not completely sold on this idea, mostly because I found the opening scenes too dramatic and too consciously “artistic,” to the point that they seemed little more than overdone wallpapers. Nonetheless, I do get von Trier’s point about distraction, and I did like the movie better as it progressed. Part I focuses on Justine (Kristen Dunst), who remains distant and troubled throughout her wedding, until her new husband leaves her by the night’s end. In Part II, we see Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggling with her depressive sister as her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) tracks the approach of the rogue planet Melancholia.
Maki always makes me watch the strangest films. Although it doesn’t beat Waking Life, Melancholia ranks very high in terms of oddity. For one thing, it confines a world catastrophe to one family’s experience. It’s actually more frightening than typical apocalyptic movies where everything is large-scale and explosive. Here, the end of the world is a most private experience. Seemingly marooned on a sprawling mansion, our characters are cut off from the rest of humanity and are left to face the end alone.
What I appreciated most about Melancholia is its skillful handling of metaphor in conflating depression and planetary collision. Von Trier identifies melancholy with a destructive planet, both of which loom over the characters’ lives in their immensity, and against which they are rendered completely powerless. But this subtlety is difficult to reconcile with the film’s extremely slow pace, which adds to its inherent heaviness and disconcerts the viewer. It’s not a pleasant experience, but one I cannot criticize because it’s clearly part of the intended effect. Strange and eerily beautiful, Melancholia is not a readily enjoyable film, but is triumphant enough to warrant intellectual appreciation and discussion. Most importantly, it exhibits a conceptual ambition that few other movies even attempt.
‘Life is only on Earth. And not for long.’