October 24, 2011


Kirsten Dunst is said to be a candidate for an Oscar for her performance in Melancholia, the latest film from Danish director Lars von Trier. She deserves the accolade but it says something about the film that the first thing to admire, the first thing I felt when I left the cinema, was admiration and pity for the actress who played in what I had just seen. For Dunst is the vehicle with which Von Trier takes us on a journey right into the heart of a particularly desperate depression. Dunst's character is implicated in two narrative arcs, the second of which takes place days after the first. The first concerns her character- Justine's- wedding to Michael (played by Alexander Skarsgard). The second concerns Justine's relationship with Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), her sister, and Claire's husband and son as a planet, Melancholia, heads towards the earth for a collision which will end everything. There are three interesting films at least here- one about depression, a second about a bourgeois wedding and the third about the day at which the world ends. The real issue that Von Trier faces throughout the film is how to draw these three films together. He does it, if he does it through the relationship between the conventional Claire and the depressed Justine.

That contrast runs through the film. It could be Trier wants us to understand Justine's predicament: I'm not sure that without understanding whether his portrait of depression is accurate, I can draw useful lessons about depression from the film. I am not a psychologist and therefore cannot really comment on how depression works in this scenario. What I think is more interesting is the set of questions that Justine's behaviour pose about our own conventional society. During the wedding her listless behaviour mocks the ceremony surrounding her. One of the comic master pieces in the film comes from Udo Kier, a wedding planner, who won't look at Justine because she has ruined his wedding! But there is a sense in the wedding scene that Kier's character is not alone. All these middle class sophisticated individuals are not demanding that Justine and Michael marry but that they satisfy their expectations of how you marry. The theatre of the wedding is important to them. Justine's behaviour turns those expectations on their head and you feel the embarrassment of the guests as she and her family manage to destroy their theatre. Nowhere is this frustration more evident than in John Claire's husband who like a stage director imagines the wedding as his production and is furious when Justine mangles her lines.

The second story line about the planet is equally a stage production and this time it is nature not a woman who fails. John has designed a scientific (it could be a theological, historical) explanation about why Melancholia won't hit the earth. Again he is trying to stage manage and control the world. Again he fails. His response is fatal. His wife's response is to retreat into anxiety. Justine though becomes calmer and calmer, more and more sublime, till at the end she creates a religious retreat- a golden cave- for her family. In this sense the conventional pieties cannot protect the other characters. Claire who has so much to lose- a husband, a son- cannot relinquish her ideals about life. Her very kindness acts against her- as she prepares to greet the end of the world with a glass of chardonnay. Two situations reveal the powerlessness of the bourgeois individual: in the first human artifice can be undermined, in the second natural forces twist the carefully created bourgeois world apart. Artifice hence becomes as Trier argues the centre of the world that we all believe in: the world of jobs and marriages is a world of human creation and due for inevitable destruction- the paths of glory lead but to the grave.

This is a nihilistic film. There is no hope for humanity post the apocalypse and all our creations- divine and scientific will fall before the end of the world. It did make me wonder, what it will be like billions of years hence when your and my children look out their windows to see the Sun expand in fire or die in silence. This is a beautiful film but its nihilism makes it incredibly hard to watch.