Metaphors at the End of The World: Melancholia (2011)


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Those who’ve never seen a Lars Von Trier film are either selling their cinematic repertoire short, or are the luckiest filmgoers alive. Or both.

The man does not make easy films to watch, and for the most part, actively goes out of his way to antagonise the audience, just with the accidental by-product that a lot of his films turn out to be brilliant at the same time.

Sympathising-with-Hitler comments at Cannes aside, I’ve always found that his films, while very good, usually have an undercurrent of shaming anyone whose life is not completely miserable, all while having a self-gratifying subtext for him to revel in his own brilliance. Or to put it in more simple terms, his films are depressing, brilliant, but smug.

The apex of this was the inexorable Anti-Christ, which I will remove the “brilliant” tag from – it’s bravely performed by its actors, but an excruciating exercise in pretension and false controversy; it starts with the death of a baby and goes on to be the most testicle-crushin’-est, blood-ejaculatin’-est, clitoral-snippin’-est fun romp of the year. More than any other Von Trier film, Anti-Christ wallows in the despair with which it’s bombarding the audience without the substance to back it up.

Anti-Christ was purportedly written from the depths of depression, and it shows – the inability for the film to deviate from utter and total misery as well as its confused assessment of the combined nature of evil, women, and the natural world spring from an unfocussed state of mind.

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Enter Melancholia, a thematically similar film that almost acts as the moment of clarity from the earlier story. It’s similarly bleak, all about depression, but it lacks the hungry smugness of Von Trier’s earlier works.

The plot follows two women, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they face the most apocalyptic moment of their lives: a wedding. The film is told in two halves, one focussing on Justine’s wedding and how her depression ruins the entire event, and the other focussing on Claire as she deals with the aftermath and having Justine hit rock bottom while in her care.

Also there’s a giant planet that crashes into the Earth and destroys it.

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But more on that later…

Justine’s inability to feel happy on her wedding night is the catalyst that sets off a series of events that derail the entire wedding; she arrives for the reception, but first just has to go and say hi to her horses; then she has to take a bath; then she has to spend some time with her mother; then she has to take a nap with her nephew and so on and so on, all while the reception downstairs is falling apart, and Claire is left to pick up the pieces.

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The first half of the film, while frustrating to watch, is dripping with black comedy; while the allegory of Justine’s depression is told with genuineness and sympathy, it’s also infused with a sense of outrageousness at just how out of control the wedding below is. And while parts of this half of the film, like Udo Kier’s disgraced wedding planner shunning Justine for ruining his wedding, are light-hearted and funny, there’s also a vague sense of ridicule of the notion of a wedding itself, and this ties in to the message of the film very adroitly, that the meaning we ascribe to the world is rendered useless at the world’s end.

It’s very clear that the film is dealing with depression from Von Trier’s personal experience with it, and that those experiences have been transposed across to Justine as a character. We’re invited to see the event through her eyes, as taxing and draining. The result of this is that the first half of the movie moves methodically slowly. It’s frustrating, and we’re meant to feel how irritating an event it is for her.

The rituals of a wedding are rendered meaningless in the film, as Justine’s depression throws any of the logic of it out the window. For instance, a waiter corrects the direction that a plate of food is passed around a table (as it must be done this way) as well as the schedule of the evening (already derailed by Justine) observing timed points where everyone retires to a room for brandy before the ceremonial nature of cake-cutting, so on and so forth.

Justine’s state of mind effortlessly makes a mockery of these events – there’s no point in doing them except to satisfy the notion that they must be done, and unless they bring any happiness to the bride or groom, there’s no real reason for it. Justine becomes so detached from the performativity of each little event of the night that by the time the bouquet-toss arrives, she’s become so withdrawn from the occasion that she simply stands on a mezzanine looking at the crowd below her. It’s up to Claire to step in and knock the bouquet over the railing, just to get things moving.

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As much as we’re meant to empathise with Justine’s despair (and we do), we’re also asked to sympathise with Claire’s frustrations at being the only one making an effort; when Claire merely knocks the bouquet out of Justine’s hands unceremoniously, it’s the point that we accept both states of mind – the despair at the depression, the frustration at the depressed.

This ties into the second half of the film, which puts Claire at the centre of the action, as she deals with the aftermath of the wedding, as well as caring for Justine, who’s depression has worsened to the point where she’s crippled by it. All the while, that sneaky planet is edging ever closer to the Earth.

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I’ll pause here to say that I’m not spoiling anything by pointing out how the film ends – the film deliberately opens with a prologue that shows the Earth being destroyed, as Von Trier didn’t want the outcome to distract (i.e. you’re not meant to watch the film and wonder if maybe they’ll make it through)

Claire’s half of the film does something of an about-turn on the assessment of depression and actually empowers the condition, noticing that, in the face of an apocalypse, those who have already given up on hope for life are able to ride something like the end of the world pretty easily; in fact, they may be the most sensible people around.

This is not to say that the film is crying “Yay depression!” but that meaning we ascribe to life and living is so dependent on the continuation of both ideals; death is only tragic if the dead wanted to continue living. For Claire, that’s what makes the impending planet so terrifying. For Justine, who has given up on life, this is why she welcomes it.

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While the second half of the film doesn’t hold as much to assess as the first, it does take some interesting stances on the ways that different minds can handle such a crisis.

I haven’t mentioned his presence in the film yet, but Kiefer Sutherland is in the film as John, Claire’s increasingly frustrated husband. It’s John who constantly badgers Claire for Justine’s behaviour, it’s John who is actively antagonistic to Justine and unsympathetic to her plight, and it’s John who confidently states that Melancholia is going to pass the Earth by and that they have nothing to worry about.

He’s the voice of contradiction in the film, invalidating Justine’s depression as mere selfishness (his concern is that she’s unappreciative of the money he’s paid for the wedding), and invalidating Claire’s concerns about the planet colliding with Earth. So naturally, he’s the first to kill himself rather than face the impending doom.

While we’re not meant to actively hate John, we’re not meant to sympathise with him like we are the two sisters. His suicide is seen as cowardly, rather than simply cutting out the middleman, and it’s suggested that his overconfidence rendered him unable to accept that he could be wrong.

Justine on the other hand is calm and welcoming of the impending obliteration. At one point, and in one of the film’s most iconic shots, she bathes in the light that Melancholia is casting over the planet completely nude, letting her impending death wash over her. The scene has an undercurrent that for Justine, it’s a sensual experience, that she’s so far gone from wanting to live anymore, that the only thing that can excite her is the certainty of her death.

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But as for Claire, she doesn’t want to die. She’s terrified of the planet, and its certainty of destroying Earth. She even tries to take her son and escape the estate, but returns on realising to the futility of that plan. Yet she doesn’t take the easy way out – it was in fact her plan to stash the pills that John used to kill himself, and on discovering it, he criticised her foolishness, for added irony. Instead, as the planet bears down on Earth, she stays with Justine and her son, and lives through the end, and we’re asked to see this as noble.

Von Trier’s sentiments have always been very much “Humans Are Bastards” and there’s no exception to that here, except that in an odd way, he’s managed to provide the best outcome for the complete obliteration. Justine’s crippling-depression empowers her to be the strongest person at the end of the world, and Claire’s fear makes her decision to stay with it all the stronger, that even in the face of total failure, having the courage to stand and face it as it bears down on you is all the more powerful.

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The film is ultimately one big metaphor – depression, in its worst stages, can feel like the end of the world. It’s a mesmerising film that Von Trier’s wrapped around that metaphor, and it’s a much more lucid assessment of depression than he was able to muddle out with Anti-Christ. The film is very much worthy of your time, even if it isn’t an easy watch.

Performances are spot-on at each and every point. Dunst deserves all the praise she’s been given for her role, as well as Gainsbourg turning in a drastically different performance than her last outing with Von Trier. All the supporting roles are excellent as well, and I can’t fault a single one.

The film is also mainly comprised of Dogme-style hand-held camerawork (although not with the movement’s restriction in how the movie is filmed) however there are times when the shots are breathtaking.

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The film opens with a prologue that shows various scenes from the film but rendered in dramatic tableaux with subtle movement. This prologue serves Von Trier’s purpose to remove the suspense for the audience, but is also beautiful.

The only real fault I can find is with the choice to use Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as the main theme for the movie; while the music suits the film perfectly, it does also get overused to the point of distraction. Also, and this is not a flaw of the film, it does move very slowly. There’s a lot to behold, and your memories of the film will be fonder than the actual viewing experience, but it is not a briskly-paced film. I recommend seeing it alone, as sitting with other people can make you feel agitated.

In the end, as amazing as it sounds, this film that focuses on despair at the end of the world and the destruction of all life on Earth, is probably the lightest film Von Trier has made, and it does so much to atone for the sins of Anti-Christ. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is so worth your consideration.

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