Attention – Spoilers Ahead!
Lars von Trier, the mastermind, the provocateur and enfant terrible of art cinema, takes on the apocalypse – where can he go from there? He has already explored good and evil, right and wrong, dominance and submission – what could he possibly try to examine when he wants to do away with it all?
The threat of annihilation comes in the shape of a foreign planet, supposedly passing the Earth to never return again. But the potential imminence of extinction is delayed by the depiction of a lavish wedding ceremony. And Lars von Trier does what Scandinavian directors do best: dissecting the sensitivities and insecurities of the upper middle class family and zooming in on its decadence and self-annihilation.
We have the depressed career woman, the emasculated husband, the self-sacrificing sister, the 2nd wave feminist hippie mom turned cynical old hag, the womanizing father and the mansplaining science adherent and brother-in-law. Von Trier seems to stay true to his style: The shaky hand-held camera aesthetic is reminiscent of Dogma days, but he also kept some of the artificial tableau-like shots he did so well in Antichrist. Most importantly, he still loves his female protagonists; that is, he loves to torture them. I cannot imagine it was just a coincidence that he chose a depressed actress to play a hysterically depressed character. Von Trier may be taking his leads over the edge, but he always gets the best out of them.
And so Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst get to play immensely dynamic and complex roles, and play it well, and the atmosphere is really gripping and everything is beautifully shot, and I keep thinking to myself: I would totally love this movie… – if it hadn’t been directed by Lars von Trier.
Because in the end the planets go BOOM! and I am left with… indifference? After watching a Lars von Trier movie? After all, he is the guy who did Dogville and Manderley and Antichrist, for heaven’s sake! Movies you could either love or hate, but they sure made you think for a very long time after the credits rolled. I remember leaving the theater after watching Antichrist for the first time, and I was angry and overwhelmed and I needed to talk to other people about it to find out why I was so enraged by all of it.
After Melancholia I felt strangely relaxed. It ended just like it was supposed to end. I felt good about it, which is not the reaction I expected, especially since the film is anything but life-affirming and optimistic. Which, I guess, says a lot about my character and world view.
Perhaps that is what it’s all about in the end: You are either Dunst’s character or Gainbourg’s. You identify with Justine or with Claire, and that is going to define your whole approach to the film. Towards the end Claire says to Justine something like this (and I am paraphrasing because I saw it in German, which certainly didn’t improve it for me): “Perhaps you are better off, because you always expect the worst.” And Justine says: “You’re right. Perhaps I am better off.”
Maybe all the Claires out there in the world are going to be really overwhelmed and moved after watching Melancholia, and all the Justines will be calm and slightly unfazed, because they have been ready for it all along and it doesn’t erode their world view. I am a Justine. Who are you?