Melancholia is a movie of disaster. Literally. Etymologically. Metaphorically.
The word disaster comes to from the Greek for “bad star,” and that portent – the idea that outside forces decide our fate — characterizes Lars von Trier’s latest effort.
The movie is split (more or less) in two parts: a small disaster (a botched wedding) and a huge disaster (the end of the world). But before you say spoilers, you should know the movie tells you all this almost immediately.
In the wedding, the bad star alights from a distance, casting an evil eye on the lovely bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Despite seeming to be a beaming bride, Justine is torn apart internally at her wedding ceremony, which takes place on a luxurious European resort. In an attempt to cope with her family, friends and wedding guests, Justine does (or is made to do) strange acts, such as urinating on a golf course, taking a long bath during her reception and even having sex (in her wedding dress!) with a young man whom she meets at her wedding. And all of her acts are done with a fake smile, buttressed by Justine’s caring and worldly sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), around whom the film’s second part orbits.
Claire, who is a figure of support and poise during the wedding, crumbles under of the gravity of immanent death. In this case, the angel of death is the wedding’s bad star, which morphs into a planet (named Melancholia) that was hiding behind the sun for ages and now seems to be on a crash course for Earth.
As Melancholia grows larger in the sky, Claire’s character dissolves in worry, anxiety and sentimentality until she no longer resembles the person she was at the wedding. And as the stars would have it, Justine finds a dark confidence in knowing the end is nigh. She, quite literally, embraces doom by lying naked before one of the Earth’s final nights.
Melancholia hints at the idea that events shape how people act and are. Personality is fluid, the movie suggests. And, moreover, there isn’t much we can do to shape it or change it.
For the symmetry of this blog, it would have been nice to say that the movie itself is a disaster. Unfortunately for me, that’s not the case. One of Lars von Trier’s cinematic gifts is his ability to craft wonderful images, and the movie’s first few minutes are nothing but awesome images — Dunst’s despairing face among birds nosediving toward death, Gainsbourg sinking into a golf course green as Earth’s gravity is severely distorted, rivers of electricity rising from fingernails! They look exactly as images of an apocalypse should.
It’s just too bad that those images, for me, were the best part. Everything else, including the end, falls short of that introduction. To be fair, there is something to be said for starting strong, but those images are about all I can say I liked about Melancholia.
In my memory, the movie comes off as one of those art objects that only prompts the question: What is the artist saying? Generally, that question bores me. I’d much rather Melancholia resemble Anti-Christ, in which feelings and images of odd terror waited in ambush at every turn, giving the viewer more to experience than ponder.
P.S. Strangely, this is the second movie I’ve reviewed this year that uses the device of another planet that was “hidden behind the sun.” The first was Another Earth.