Review by Richard Brody
When ten minutes into a movie you feel very agitated and more than a week later you can’t get the movie out of your mind, what do you do? Write about said movie and hope for relief.
SPOILER ALERT – much of the movie is about to be revealed:
“Melancholia,” the most recent film by director and screenwriter Lars Van Triers, opens with a beautiful, slow motion preview of the movie accompanied by the prelude from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” The music conveys feelings of ecstasy, but the surroundings and slow motion of the characters seem to convey a sense of despair and entrapment. Could this be a dream, a melancholic nightmare? For some viewers, this will be the high point of the movie. If you keep an open mind, there is a much bigger payoff.
In the first scene of the movie proper, the newlyweds, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), are being driven to their wedding reception in a limousine the size of a bus. Our newlyweds appear happy, but something in their demeanor is off. They seem to be acting rather than being. The reception is being held at a castle that sits on a hill and is accessible only by a steep, narrow, winding road. We are inside the limo that is moving in stops and starts. Who orders a limo this excessive to negotiate a road like this? None other than the bride’s wealthy brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland). He also owns the castle that has a large stable with horses and an 18-hole golf course among its many accoutrements, and he is paying for the wedding reception.
The limo finally arrives two hours late, and the bride and groom are chastised by John for the lateness of their arrival. Who has not had a dream in which nothing goes as it should and the harder we try the more futile our efforts?
Excess also characterizes the party and the guests, most of whom seem to think the day is about them and not the newlyweds. Particularly egregious is the behavior of the bride’s parents, both of whom could be poster children for narcissism. We also must add the bride’s boss – who seems to have attended the wedding primarily to get a tag line for an ad from the bride – and the aforementioned brother-in-law, who can’t fail to remind us who owns the castle and is paying for this shindig. Van Trier’s commentary on self-importance and excessive wealth is in keeping with our broken Congress and Occupy protests.
Justine spends most of her wedding party in hiding. Is this symptomatic of the psychiatric disorder, melancholia, or a very sane response to the utter absurdity of life on Planet Earth (perhaps these have always been the same)? Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), wife of John, is in charge of keeping Justine in line and talks her out of the bath she decided to take while the party was going on. Justine just can’t get behind her newlywed role for long. During the course of the evening she justifiably insults her boss and loses her job, refuses to consummate her marriage, running from her room to the outdoors where she violently throws one of the guests into a sand trap on the golf course and has sex with him. By the time the evening has ended, Justine’s husband has left her. Kim Kardashian, eat your heart out.
The only time that Justine seems at peace is when she is looking at the sky. We learn during the course of the evening that there is a planet, Melancholia, that has been hidden behind the sun and was unknown to us. It has left its orbit and is heading toward Earth. The question is whether it will hit Earth or not. This concludes the first part of the movie.
The second part begins with Justine being retrieved from her flat in a severe depression by her sister. Justine’s melancholia begins to lift as the planet Melancholia gets closer to Earth, and she tells her sister “Life on Earth is evil.” In a later scene, we see Justine lying naked on an embankment with arms that seem to beckon to the planet that is clearly in view. However, John is convinced both – by his analysis of Melancholia’s trajectory and his telescopic viewing – that the two planets will get very close to one another, but not collide. When the evidence convinces him otherwise, he cowardly and selfishly commits suicide by taking all the pills that he had chastised his wife for buying, should the planetary collision be unavoidable. This, of course leaves no pills for his wife, his young son or Justine. As her sister’s state of mind declines, Justine becomes very clear-headed, and she creates an exit strategy for her sister, young nephew and herself. They will build a magic cave. Gathering large twigs they create an open teepee and the three of them crawl inside and hold hands as the two planets collide.
Was this final scene a return to the womb or the caves from which our early ancestors kept themselves safe? Who knows? Van Trier’s view of humanity and the road we have taken seems to be similar to the one shared by Cormac McCarthy. In the end, the acting is excellent, the cinematography is stunning, the soundtrack haunting, and the story and images open to many interpretations. Isn’t that what makes a great movie, or have I been taken in? How fine is the line between pretentiousness and fine art or one’s certainty about human nature and behavior? I feel better.