As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing like a disaster movie. And Melancholia is nothing like a disaster movie. It is, however, more like a disaster movie than you might expect from a mischievous and iconoclastic filmmaker like Lars Von Trier. After his last film, the unforgettable but problematic Antichrist – which I reviewed here – I was expecting something mercifully less horrific, and the ubiquitous trailer certainly led me to this expectation: Melancholia seemed to be about a group of people at a country-house wedding on the eve of the possibility of the end of the world. Having seen it at the Curzon on Sunday, I can tell you that it is and it isn’t.
A world apart from Von Trier’s earlier, Dogme 95-influenced works – Breaking The Waves, The Idiots, Dancer In The Dark (although as pedants will gleefully tell you, only the middle one of those actually abides by the Dogme 95 manifesto), and their theatrical, anti-style follow-ups Dogville and Manderlay, Antichrist and Melancholia seem to inhabit grander worlds, visually ravishing, artistically precise, proudly cinematic. Antichrist went into the woods to discover primal and disturbing things about the human condition; Melancholia spends the weekend at a magnificent turn-of-the-century country manor house (actually, Tjolöholm Castle in Halland, Sweden), but achieves the same end. And the end is its cosmic vanishing point: a rogue planet, called Melancholia, is set to pass by this one at a specified time, but there seems to be an off-chance that it will hit us, and cause the apocalypse. Despite the gravity of the situation, nobody seems to follow this event on TV or radio, as would be the case in a Hollywood film about the apocalypse, in which the media response would be as vital as the response of the protagonists. This failure, or refusal, to engage, merely increases the sense of isolation for our characters. (One character looks up Melancholia on the internet, but it’s as if the laptop is forbidden contraband.)
For a self-professed depressive – and one who apparently clawed himself out of a dark place by making the terrifying Antichrist – Von Trier has clearly inserted himself into the action, and inaction, of Melancholia by way of Kirsten Dunst’s Justine. That’s her, above, floating in the water of her own premonitory dreams at the very beginning of the film, Ophelia-like. (Oh, by the way, once again, Von Trier writes and directs what is essentially a Danish film, set in Sweden, but in the English language, using predominantly American and British actors, who use their own accent even when, say, the American Dunst and the Anglo-French Charlotte Gainsbourg are supposed to be sisters. In any case, the language in Melancholia seems far more naturalistic than in the more psychoanalytical Antichrist.)
Justine – a full-bodied and magnetic performance by Dunst – is a depressive who’s somehow agreed to marry the seemingly blameless and sympathetic Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a man she cannot love. Their wedding reception, organised by her straightlaced sister and held at she and her filthy-rich husband Keifer Sutherland’s remote hotel where time seems to stand still, is an unsuitably lavish and formal affair, whose very opulence frames Justine’s inevitable descent into, well, melancholia, which takes disturbing form as the festivities collapse into black farce. (I am not the first the spot the similarities to fellow Dogme 95 man Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, whose hotel celebration was similarly rent asunder. It’s so obvious it barely needs pointing out.)
In this first section – named after Justine (the second act is named after Gainsbourg’s Claire) – Von Trier has his expected pops at posh people, but allows plenty of humanity to seep through what is a kind of nightmarish social comedy, thanks in part to the warmth of John Hurt’s performance as a rogeuish father, to Skarsgärd’s guileless charm, and to the camp humour of Udo Keir’s wedding planner. Von Trier drinks in the grand, partly studio-created surroundings, and the vast grounds of the castle at night, enjoying the sheer cinema of the sequence in which hot air balloons, inscribed with marker-pen messages of love from the guests, are released into the night sky – the sky that will later be filled with the approaching blue planet that will vaporise ours.
The second half is a chamber piece, after the wedding, when the guests are all gone, and Justine is now lost to her dark side, this bout of depression almost totally debilitating, and which recasts Claire as her carer, much to the inconvenience of the boorish Sutherland, whose main job is now to convince their young son, Leo, and his jittery wife, that Melancholia will pass gloriously by and not bring about the end of the world. Naturally, the depressed Justine’s attitude is: bring it on.
Melancholia is full of arresting, ambiguous, apocalyptic visions. It actually begins with a premonition that the world will indeed end, and gives dream-like glimpses of how it might play out in these opulent surroundings. (There’s a nice gag among the doom and gloom in this prologue where we see Claire clutching Leo in her arms and running across a golf green; the flag tells us that it’s the 19th hole.) There’s no denying that Von Trier is now an accomplished visual artist. He makes explicit references to art – a Breughel painting, The Hunters In Winter, is seen burning at the beginning; the Ophelia link is clear; and various key works are highlighted when Justine manhandles a series of coffee table art books into a display at the hotel – which is to be expected in an “art” film, but he creates art of his own, too: he dwarfs figures against the manicured lawns while the “extra” planet looms down from the night sky. This approach is painterly and can be consumed and admired as such.
I made the connection to the work of Peter Greenaway while watching Antichrist, and it’s even more distinct here. He’s not as playful as Greenaway, whose 80s films often felt like puzzles to be solved by smart alecks, but Von Trier has developed a similarly keen sense of visual rhyme. (Without going into any plot details, there is a small bridge over a stream, and twice we see a horse refuse to cross it, and later, an electric golf cart. This is not an accident; this means something! The horse refuses to cross it out of fear or foreboding, but of its own accord; the car simply runs out of juice before crossing it. Discuss?)
In all, it’s a gorgeous looking film, with a powerful sense of foreboding. Even though it begins with the end, we have no real way of knowing if what we’ve seen is a flashforward, or a paranoid delusion, perhaps from the fevered mind of Justine. You can make your own mind up when you see it. Lars Von Trier can be annoying. He can dress up pretence in emperor’s finery. But he’s also transforming himself into quite a showman. It takes some front to use Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to soundtrack the impending destruction of the planet, as if to underline the “operatic” nature of the film. It’s not Armageddon, but it is the end of the world as he knows it.