Cannes (Official Selection) – It was one of the most talked-about films at Cannes 2011, with Kirsten Dunst carrying off the best actress award (as co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg did for Antichrist two years ago) and director von Trier banned for half of the festival. All the fuss is quite fitting, says Emma Rowley, for a film that sees the world end with a bang.
Melancholia is a film about the complete annihiliation of the planet. It's an existential crisis wrapped in an existential catastrophe – that is, one person's overwhelming sense of impending doom is borne out in the complete destruction of life on earth. The prophetic figure is an unlikely one, Kirsten Dunst's Justine, a gifted advertising copywriter. It's her wedding day and she has decided to marry fiancé Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) with all the pomp that a traditional service and party entails. But as the day progresses, she grows increasingly isolated, realising that she can't give herself to life just as it's about to end. She is, in other words, the mother of all party-poopers and (one suspects) von Trier's mouthpiece within the film.
Of course, in the context of the film she's absolutely right, something von Trier wants us to know from the outset. (“It was the same thing with Titanic,” he says in his director's notes. “When they board the ship, you just know: aw, something with an iceberg will probably turn up....In Melancholia, it's interesting to see how the characters we follow react.”) A new planet, the titular Melancholia, has been discovered. It was hidden behind the sun and has been flung out of its orbit. Scientists calculate that it'll pass close by Earth, providing a once-in-a-lifetime cosmological spectacle – but they're wrong. “The earth is evil,” Justine says, sounding like an animatronic fox. “We don't need to grieve for it. No-one will miss it.” Or, as von Trier himself said: “In a way, the film does have a happy ending.” Chaos reigns!
Justine's attitude is contrasted with that of her elder sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Married to wealthy hotelier John (Kiefer Sutherland, not entirely free of the ghost of Jack Bauer), and devoted to her young son, she becomes obsessed with the destructive power of Melancholia but is willing to be talked out of her fears by her husband's confidence. For John, cushioned by his wealth and the sense of invincibility it provides, it's an opportunity to buy an expensive telescope, to bring in supplies for the probable power cuts and to sit back and enjoy the show.
After a prologue (more on this later), the film is divided into two parts. The first, entitled 'Justine' charts the wedding party. If all the world-ending drama sounds a bit rich, the wedding celebrations take an opposing path, characterised by small, character-based shenanigans. John Hurt's father-of-the-bride is an old roué who calls all the ladies Betty and inexplicably filches the table silver. Charlotte Rampling is his estranged, bitter wife; no fan of marriage and with no desire to hide her feelings. Meanwhile Udo Kier's wedding planner grows increasingly distraught as Justine derails his perfectly planned event, finally blocking her from his view with an upraised hand.
The second part, entitled 'Claire' picks up the story some days after the wedding, when Justine returns to the hotel to stay with her sister. This segment sees a shift in the balance of power between the two siblings, with Justine gaining in strength as her predictions come to pass and Claire overcome with fear for her son.
The film's prologue consists of a sequence of apocalyptic scenes set to ear-bleeding Wagner (from Tristan and Isolde). First is Dunst in hyper-real close-up (second picture), while behind her dead birds plummet from the sky. The second scene (third picture), seems to reference Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, specifically the famous scene where people stroll down a path but at either side of them the trees lack shadow. In von Trier's scene, the people in the centre have two shadows – from the moon and Melancholia. Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow appears. Dunst lies, fully clad in a river, in a nod to Millais' Ophelia. The planet Melancholia crashes into Earth in cataclysmic glory. These images are from Justine's visions. She's an anti-prophet who sees no God in the universe: “Life is only on Earth. And not for long.” It's a philosophy diametrically opposed to Malick's Palme D'Or winning The Tree of Life. I'd recommend them both. Ideally together, once they're out on DVD, for a really weird night in.
Rating on a scale of 5 lilies-of-the-valley: 4
Release date: UK: 30 September 2011; US: 4 November 2011
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Screenplay by: Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Udo Kier, Brady Corbet
Running time: 130 mins