A Strange Review: Melancholia

The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.

There may be life somewhere else.

But there isn’t.

It’s a comedy, you see. Or at least I hope so. Because if Melancholia, the much-ballyhooed dirge from controversial Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier, is intended to be tragedy, then we have here a disaster that makes the German Peasants War of 1524 look like an episode of Curb Appeal.

Cold open. Very cold. Deep space. Deep, deep space. Planets. Colliding. People. Fleeing. Nature. Unhinged. A bride. Entangled. In tree roots. Everything. Moving. Slowly. Until. Planets. Go. Boom. Blackout.

A terrifying dream? The nocturnal effluvia of a melancholic personality? Or a presage of terrible things to come, a foreordained and predestined end of everything. Make that Everything.

Justine. Played by Kirsten Dunst. It’s her wedding day. She and her groom are two hours late to the reception owing to the incompetence of a limo driver who won his license at a Middle School raffle.

Justine’s sister, Claire, played by the painfully pained Charlotte Gainsbourg, is more angry than relieved, having gone to great pains to create a party to end all wedding parties at an estate that features an 18-hole golf course and onion soup. Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a bitter, pissy woman who declaims to all the attendees how she hates marriage, which is why she didn’t go to the church. And who can blame her, when her ex husband (the great John Hurt), has shown up with two dates, both named Betty.

Justine’s boss, Stellan Skarsgard (real-life dad of Alexander, who plays the pathetic groom), is the head of an advertising agency and offers her as a wedding gift a promotion to art director from that of copy writer. There’s just one catch: he needs a tagline for a new ad campaign. Before the honeymoon begins. In an hour of so. And to ensure that he gets the goods, he has just hired his nephew to get that tagline out of the otherwise preoccupied Justine before evening’s end, lest he lose said job.

So how is Justine holding up under all this wackadoodle? Not well. She is trying, poor thing. Putting on a brave face. Insisting that this extravagant celebration is exactly what she wanted. Then why does she keep walking out? Why does she leave the table to go take a bath? Why does she leave her poor schmuck of a clueless husband to hump the boss’s nephew on the golf course? Why does she then tell the boss off in a fit of worker revolt not seen since Keep the Aspidistra Flying?

Why has she used her wedding day to blow up everything “good” in her life?

Because life on earth is evil.

After the wedding guests have all gone home, Justine plunges deeper into near catatonic depression, to the point where she can’t even bath herself without help from Claire. Her put-upon sister, too, is limp with anxiety, not only because her sibling, who she hates as well as pities, can’t help checking on the progress of that planet seen in the opening sequence, subtly called Melancholia. Is it going to hit planet Earth, or simply provide a once-in-a-lifetime fly-by, as her fabulously wealthy scientist husband (Kiefer Sutherland) insists.

And so we wait. Is science right? Will earth survive this near calamity of flirting orbs? Or will all on Earth be reduced to ashes, rendering the best and the brightest a bunch of boobies who can’t even get the Apocalypse right? And if so, what were all those putative good things — like love and family and work and estates with golf courses and onion soup — for? What did they mean? Were they always meaningless, as Justine and Claire’s mother never tires of declaiming? Or do they just become meaningless in the face of mass extinction, which is just personal extinction with more running around?

Melancholia is an exercise in crapulous angst — not to be mistaken for existential angst. A tipsy filmmaker, a poor man’s Ingmar Bergman, assuming that poor man was Woody Allen on the set of Interiors, has decided to exorcise his demons by giving Charlotte Gainsbourg a role in which she’s not forced to perform her own clitoridectomy. Instead, the audience is forced to perform a lobotomy, at least if they’re to take the critics’ fawning over this empty pretentious twaddle seriously.

As for Kirsten Dunst, who won Best Actress at Cannes: She’s suitably morose and self-absorbed. And she’s nude in two scenes. And she stares out into the distance with an intensity not seen since Deepak Chopra’s cameo in The Love Guru. If she beats out Meryl Streep’s sure-to-be-spot-on but soulless imitation of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, I’ll punch a mime.

How seriously are we supposed to take these empty, two-dimensional, dullwitted characters? If they’re truly representative of humanity, at least a humanity with a net worth in the mid eight figures, who wouldn’t want to see them obliterated? Even their pain is boring. That’s the problem with a “dramatic” exercise in the meaningless of all things: your attempt to be meaningful is itself meaningless.

Don’t look for any religious undertones or spiritual yearning or even last-gasp efforts to seek the will or face of God. This universe is as empty as an Episcopal church on Stewardship Sunday. The very last image, of Justine, Claire, and Claire’s little boy huddling together under a teepee configuration of sticks with no external covering, is supposed to sum it all up in some pathetic way: all our attempts to hide from reality are merely so many twigs in a tornado. OK. Thanks for sharing.

This could have been an intriguing look at clinical depression from the inside — you feel like the world is coming to an end and you just don’t care about anyone or anything and why won’t it all end already. That may have been what initially motivated Von Trier, given statements he has made in interviews. The finished product, however, is not that. It’s clinical depression as the only grown-up way of looking at life full stop. And the only reason I don’t kill myself if because you won’t all join in and thus confirm how smart I am.

Again, I tried to imagine this as a comedy whose punch line was “Beware happy people, they don’t have enough information.” And perhaps Von Trier is, in fact, having us on. He’s known for being a prankster, pulling the public’s whiskers for a laugh.

Or maybe this is just a piece sullen, sulky dribble dressed up as a great meditation on the human condition and the inevitable planet that hits us all — death.

I’m sticking with dribble. So bring a lobster bib.

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8 thoughts on “A Strange Review: Melancholia

  1. Why let your mime punching be contingent on the unpredictable vagaries of the Academy? And why wait that long? Just find the nearest mime and punch him. You will be less melancholy.

  2. Pingback: First Links – 12.15.11 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  3. I saw it. The only interesting part was when they put those coat-hanger contraptions up to their chests to check on the size of the planet. I want one of those for Christmas.

    • Agreed. A clever visual device.

      I’d like one that measures the approach of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. When you can make out the stitching on the feedbags, you may want to rethink the purchase of that garden gnome…

  4. “This could have been an intriguing look at clinical depression from the inside — you feel like the world is coming to an end and you just don’t care about anyone or anything and why won’t it all end already. … The finished product, however, is not that. It’s clinical depression as the only grown-up way of looking at life full stop. And the only reason I don’t kill myself if because you won’t all join in and thus confirm how smart I am.”

    The two thoughts on either side of the ellipsis are not contradictory in the slightest. The latter is exactly what “a look at clinical depression from the inside” would be. Once one says he wants a view from the inside, then that view necessarily describes the film’s universe and one cannot complain that it takes that POV as normative. From the inside, suicide (the end of the world, subjectively speaking) IS rational and the only grown-up way, etc. Indeed, I said virtually all of this in the context of ANTICHRIST here — http://vjmorton.wordpress.com/2009/09/12/toronto-capsules-day-1/

    • I hear what you’re saying. I simply think Von Trier failed. He may have been striving for “Persona,” but he wound up with “The Big Bus” — a parody of an inner disaster movie.

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