There is nothing else in life quite like the feeling of emerging from a movie theater in the middle of an afternoon so completely swept up in the world you had surrendered yourself to for the past couple of hours that you are utterly stunned to discover that life as you knew it had continued in your absence. Not every movie succeeds in doing this, and few so well as Melancholia. I stepped out of the theater after seeing it and, for a brief moment, was amazed to discover people going about their business as if unaware that the world had just ended.
Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier, is a formally beautiful film divided into three parts: a brief prologue, and two main sections. The prologue foreshadows the film's apocalyptic end: birds fall dead from the sky; a mother, clutching her child, sinks knee-deep in the mud of a rapidly melting earth; a horse falls to the ground in such excruciatingly slow motion that we watch each crease in his neck take shape--first one, then another--as he agonizingly arches his head to the side. The film opens with a close-up of Kirstin Dunst's character seemingly frozen in time, barely revealing any movement to assure the viewer that this is a person and not a portrait; but then in what could be called sudden in no context other than the slowness of this moment, birds begin to fall from the sky. Time seems to stand literally but not entirely still; it is manipulated in a remarkable and unsettling way in these opening shots, as though the elements of the frame are moving at different speeds, ranging from the slow to the glacially slower. It is the paradox of time and perception, the illusion of imperceptible slowness with which a planet hurls itself through the heavens. There is something maddening in all this, something that goes beyond the apocalyptic imagery to reflect the psychic world that the film inhabits: the feeling of stuckness, of being almost but not quite paralyzed, of falling just short of being able to act to save either yourself or your world. Public and private are one in Melancholia, apocalypses are both personal and global, and the one constant is our inability to change the outcome.
The first of the film's two main sections focuses on the wedding of Justine (Kirstin Dunst), the younger of the two sisters around whom the narrative is centered. The reception is an elegant and lavish affair; but despite the meticulous planning of the older, take-charge sister, Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg), things do not go smoothly. A stretch limo bearing the bride and groom gets hopelessly stuck trying to negotiate the meandering country lane leading to Clare's castle-like home, where the reception is being held. The newlyweds giggle together as the chauffeur tries unsuccessfully to steer the car around an especially sharp turn. The bride and groom each takes a turn behind the wheel, before eventually giving up and taking off on foot for the reception. When they arrive--two hours late but still in high spirits--the bride is immediately chastised by her sister for keeping her guests waiting. The dynamics of the sisters' relationship are clear: Justine is the flighty one, Clare the caretaker; nonetheless, the sisters are clearly attached to each other. The wedding festivities proceed, and the marriage seems like it is off to a very good start. The bride and groom look lovingly at each other, laugh together over the minor catastrophe of the limo, and genuinely seem like a happy couple. Marking the auspicious beginning of their marriage, a new star appears in the sky, as if waiting to be wished on.
There are the usual annoying guests at the reception: a roguish father, played by John Hurt; a marriage-loathing mother, played to bitchy perfection by the incomparable Charlotte Rampling; a passive-aggressive boss who toasts the bride by announcing that she's been given a promotion, and then pressures her to come up there-and-then with a tagline for an ad campaign. Gradually Justine's smile becomes more forced, but it is clear that this is due to much more than the annoyances of her parents and boss or the demands of her sister and brother-in-law that she not ruin the wedding they've put together for her at great expense. The burden of being a bride, of smiling and being happy, slowly overwhelms her until she is so completely incapable of going through the ritualized motions that she stands frozen on a balcony unable to toss her bouquet, and eventually Clare has to grab it off her in exasperation and toss it herself. Justine becomes increasingly elusive, disappearing from the reception (and her new husband's side) for long periods of time. I have a fondness for images of runaway brides (though not for the movie of that name). I've written before of the wonderful moment in Gegen die Wand when Sibel returns home from spending her wedding night with another man. The sight of Justine zipping across the grounds in a golf cart, her veil and train streaming behind her, then squatting to take a pee on the manicured grass of the golf green, surrounded by billows of flouncy white fabric, is a similarly exhilarating moment. We think, briefly, that she will succeed in escaping, even while not understanding yet what it is that she feels the need to escape: convention or the handsome and adoring (if somewhat simple and inarticulate) young husband that she seemed so in love with only a few hours before. Eventually it becomes clear that Justine is at war with herself, battling between depression and a desperate play at normality. Normality doesn't stand a chance, and the groom is gone before the last of the wedding cake is eaten.
The final chapter of the film is set in the aftermath of the disastrous wedding. "Things," as Yeats said, "fall apart." Justine is now husbandless, jobless, and reduced to a near-catatonic state of depression; Clare brings Justine to her home (the site of the ill-fated wedding reception) so she can care for her. The new star that seemed like some lovely omen at the wedding has turned out to be the planet Melancholia, which had heretofore been hidden by the sun, but which now is heading toward the earth. The beautiful blue planet dominates the sky. Clare's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is enthralled by this remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime sight and shares this enthusiasm with the couple's young son. Together father and son follow the progress of Melancholia, excitedly anticipating the moment when it will pass most closely to the earth. John is a wealthy and confident man. An amateur astronomer, he owns a powerful telescope, which features prominently throughout the film. It now takes on an almost talismanic role as John hopes to capture and briefly possess this strange phenomenon in the sky. The same impulse is mirrored in the makeshift lasso-like device fashioned by his young son (Ironically, the child's homemade instrument ends up being the more accurate gauge of the planet's proximity). The practical Clare, meanwhile, is filled with dread. Despite her husband's insistence that she stop reading doomsday prophesies on the internet, she cannot shake her fear that the two planets will collide. Hedging his bets, John stockpiles supplies but swears Justine to secrecy, lest Clare take this as a sign of a crack in his confidence about their ultimate survival. It is the interplay of moods--the husband's enthusiasm, the wife's growing fear, and the passivity of the previously rebellious sister--that sets the tone as we await the inevitable.
Ultimately, Melancholia, is a kind of depressive's manifesto, an argument that all those powerful, practical, take-charge sorts like Clare and John are no match for a universe that really cares not at all about us and our little lives. It is Justine, poor damaged Justine, who succeeds, if one can call it that. She has tried to play the game their way, but couldn't; but she has also already played out her own private version of this grand and cataclysmic drama. In surrendering to the forces of her own troubled soul and an indifferent cosmos, she is the one person capable of helping her family face the inconceivable with grace and a small dose of comfort.
Watch the official trailer for Melancholia here.