Let me say this before anything else: movies truly don’t get any more beautiful than Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. There are a number that can match it in terms of visual brilliance, but I’ve yet to see any that surpass it. The images captured in this film are as breathtaking as it gets. Attention has no doubt been paid to many of them, including the impeccably filmed opening and the astonishing depictions of the planet Melancholia as it approaches Earth. But my favorite moment in the film from a purely visual standpoint might be when Justine and Claire (the sisters who are the movie’s main characters) go for a horseback ride on a foggy day. It’s a brief moment, lasting a few seconds tops. But there’s something magical about the way the camera follows the horses even as it’s partially obscured by the mist: a magic that’s very nearly equaled by numerous other sequences in this masterpiece.
I say masterpiece because while it certainly is one of the film’s greatest virtues, Melancholia also has far more going for it than just its visual look. After all, the world is filled with movies that impress visually but are deficient in story, writing, acting, or numerous other key elements that make great motion pictures great. But like The Tree of Life, this film is not truly about the stunning imagery. Rather, it uses that imagery to tell a profound story that may mean something slightly different to each individual that watches it. It’s possible even to view the film as a confrontational work cynical about various aspects of humanity, but to me it’s simply a strange, haunting meditation on what each of these two very different people represent.
Though Justine (Kirsten Dunst in a tremendous performance) is the main focus throughout much of the film and certainly the character it identifies with the most, it seems necessary to talk about Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) first. That’s because she’s the entry point into this elusive work for most of us: representing the typical person’s feelings, fears, and eventual terror and weakness when facing certain death. Observe the movie’s first half, which depicts a wedding ceremony for Justine and her husband in which the guests simply are focused on having a good time, while Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) try and ensure the event runs smoothly. Aside from Justine (who is shown glancing up at it a few times), none of them pay any heed to Melancholia: the planet that will soon spell their doom.
And can they really be blamed for that? As John says, the planet is expected to come close to the Earth without actually hitting it. Claire grows more nervous as the day of the near-collision approaches: a feeling that is only natural. But up until that point, no one (not even Justine, though that’s for very different reasons) worries about it, because to do so would require us to think about our own mortality. And that is something virtually no one wants to do. So we party and lose ourselves in worldly pleasures, denying for as long as possible the realization that we are in fact mortal. This film doesn’t criticize us for that, but simply sits back and observes this inescapable truth about human behavior. Then, when the fear and grief show up on Claire’s face – Gainsbourg is every bit as remarkable in this film as Dunst is – we feel it as if it were our own (because it is). And it’s devastating.
Justine, on the other hand, has never been able to lose herself in the world the way most of us can. She’s never been happy, and Dunst’s performance during the first half (in which she attempts to put on a façade of joy that eventually fails) is especially brilliant at conveying the wounded soul of the character. Midway through the film, she loses her job and her new husband and spirals into an even deeper depression, during which she becomes barely able to move and seems almost lifeless. For the most part, the only times she comes to life are when observing Melancholia, as if she knows something’s about to happen with it. For Claire, it represents fear and death. For Justine, it’s a sort of salvation.
Is it salvation for all of us, or just her? The calmly breathtaking, almost serene way in which the final destruction of Earth unfolds seems to support the former notion. Melancholia suggests that here’s a beauty to humanity’s destruction and in nature itself that we are either unable or unwilling to create in our actions and lives, and by movie’s end only Justine seems to have realized this. And as she calmly gathers her nephew and her terrified, sobbing sister together under a sort of “house” made of sticks to await the end, she becomes the movie’s heroine: her inability to connect with the meaningless material world a blessing rather than a curse. Claire, John, and the rest of the more minor characters involved in the wedding ceremony (in other words, us) are the misguided fools. (Again, the movie doesn’t really attack us for it, preferring to simply remain a silent witness.)
Whether you agree with this bleak notion or not (I personally don’t), Lars von Trier’s commitment to his vision makes this a movie for the ages. In a way it’s the exact opposite of The Tree of Life, which explored the wonder as well as the overall insignificance of human existence. Melancholia solely focuses on the latter. It dares to suggest that there’s not really anything special about us. We’re simply blips on the overall radar of time and nature: ready to be wiped away at any time by another planet or perhaps some other unforeseen cataclysm. And it forces us to question just who we are and what our lives stand for, while also delivering an enrapturing film experience of astonishing beauty.
P.S. One final thought I had after finishing this piece: does anyone else think that the visual wonder of Melancholia undermines some of its ideas? As I’ve said, I disagree with the film’s views on our existence. And my love of movies is a big reason why. How can our lives and the things we create (relationships, art, buildings, music, writing, etc.) not be worthwhile when motion pictures like this are being made? This is an extraordinary film, and to me it reaffirms that human beings are capable of achieving extraordinary things, even if we may well wind up a footnote in the history of the world when all is said and done. That probably wasn’t Lars von Trier’s intent in making it, but I think it’s an interesting contradiction and one worth thinking about.