About a third of the way into Lars von Trier’s end of the world drama Melancholia you start hoping the world will end and kill all the protagonists. About an hour in, you start praying the world will end and kill all the protagonists. Then, somewhere around the 90 minutes mark, when you realise there's another 46 minutes left for you to endure, you start praying the world will actually end and kill you...
Borrowing its basic premise from Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer’s classic ‘30s pulp novel When Worlds Collide (already filmed in 1951 and in the process of being remade by The Mummy director Stephen Sommers), Melancholia sucks all the fun out of the end of the world. Admittedly, it’s Lars von Trier so it’s doubtful anyone in the audience is expecting Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay levels of planet trashing but still…would it have killed you Lars to drop a comedy asteroid on say, Udo Kier, whose sole function as wedding planner in the movie is to offer the closest thing to boggle-eyed light relief?
Melancholia opens with a lengthy, bravura slow-motion collage of apocalyptic imagery; dead birds rain down around Kirsten Dunst, a horse collapses, Charlotte Gainsbourg struggles across a quicksand golf course with a child in her arms in the middle of a hail storm, static electricity arcs skywards from Dunst’s fingers, Dunst in a wedding dress lies floating in a pond in a self-concious nod to Millais’ Ophelia, an extra-solar planet looms menacingly towards the Earth before finally striking it, swallowing it whole. And it’s all cut to Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde, considered by Proust and Nietzsche (and probably von Trier) to be one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. It’s a fantastic opening, in around 10 minutes it distils Melancholia’s themes and plot strands into a bite-sized chunk that makes the two and a bit hours that follow not only redundant but a tedious, superfluous waste of your time. Even if you do get to see Kirsten nekkid.
The rest of the film is divided into two distinct parts; each named after the pair of sisters played by Dunst and Gainsbourg. The first half, Justine, is set during the wedding reception from Hell, like Festen without the child abuse and suicide (What is it with the Danes that they can’t just enjoy a party?). Justine (Dunst) has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and, at the reception held in the up-market holiday resort owned by sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), after a series of delays, minor mishaps and bad behaviour by some of the guests (most notably her parents John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), the marriage implodes, Justine’s depression overtaking her, driving her to destroy her relationship with Michael and insult her boss. All the while a new star glitters in the sky, watching over events. The second half, Claire, sees Claire, John, son Leo (Cameron Spurr) and the almost catatonically depressed Justine (well, Alexander Skarsgard has just slipped though her fingers. You’d be depressed too…) gather at the deserted resort to watch the flyby of newly discovered extra-solar rogue planet Melancholia which is due to narrowly miss the Earth. As Melancholia gets closer and it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s going to hit the Earth, the sisters almost swap personalities, the depressed Justine taking the end of the world in her stride while Claire dissolves into hysteria and entertains thoughts of suicide.
Overlong, ponderous and pretentious, Melancholia offers few insights on the human condition other than von Trier’s belief that depressed people are good in a crisis as they already expect the worst. While it’s gorgeously shot, definitely the most visually stunning film von Trier has made (if Peter Greenaway made a disaster movie, this is what it would like), with it’s melding of the personal with the cosmic and its desperate groping for profundity, Melancholia feels like a gloomy companion piece to this year’s self-indulgent Palmes d’Or-winner The Tree Of Life.
Never the subtlest of filmmakers, watching Melancholia feels like you’re being Danza slapped about the head by an engorged von Trier for two and a bit hours. “Look bitches,” he’s saying, “The film’s called Melancholia. (Slap) Kirsten Dunst is depressed. (Slap) She has melancholia. (Slap) She’s so depressed the world is ending. (Slap) That’s what it’s like being depressed. You want the world to end. Do you get it? (Slap) Do you? (Slap) Who’s your daddy? (Slap) Who’s your daddy, bitch? (Slap) Yeah baby, Lars is your daddy…”
While von Trier’s diverse, eclectic cast are uniformly excellent, with Dunst and Gainsbourg perfect as the sisters, Dunst giving her finest performance in years and Gainsbourg almost equaling her performance in Antichrist, and there are individual moments of breathtaking beauty; that fantastic opening, Dunst wandering the hotel grounds at night in her wedding dress like a demented Miss Havisham, Gainsbourg spying on Dunst as she bathes naked in the rays of Melancholia, the stunning climax, ultimately, Melancholia is a soporific disappointment.
Lars von Trier
Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard, Cameron Spurr, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier
Lars von Trier