Melancholia, a film by director Lars van Trier, is the antidote to reality TV. If reality TV is a modern melodrama, Melancholia turns those shop worn roles against the viewer. Reality TV reinforces your expectations; Melancholia on the other hand, is a lens that makes you see the world in a completely unexpected way.
The story takes place at a country manor and
follows four main characters: Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), their son Leo (Cameron Spur), and the protagonist Justine (Kristin Dunst), Claire’s sister. There are two chapters: entitled Justine and Claire respectively.
The story begins with free-spirited Justine’s wedding reception. As Justine’s behavior and that of her family becomes increasingly strange at the wedding reception, the viewer is led to see the incidents as isolated, because the alternative of a marriage ending on the wedding day makes the Kardashian imbroglio downright wholesome. The impatience and bewilderment of the family and guests mirrors the experience of the audience as Justine insouciantly ends her marriage and tells off her boss after he announces her promotion to Art Director in his wedding toast. It seems likeself-destruction of Sheentastic proportions (especially combined with the drama of LvT being banned from Cannes during the festival). But what we don’t realize is that we have formed an opinion about Justine, an unshakeable opinion that we are reluctant to change no matter what the evidence or the circumstances.
The next Chapter is called Claire. Unsurprisingly, Claire’s chapter begins with Justine who is too sick to get up and take a bath even with Claire’s help. The house is abuzz not with a wedding reception this time but for an interplanetary near miss scientists assure us will not result in an unthinkable collision resulting in the destruction of the earth. However the near miss will be close enough that the earth will be affected in various ways as the planets pass each other. These plausible symptoms help create anxiety, and simultaneously rationalize that it is all under control. The two chapters are mirror images of the denial of the inevitable. We gobble up the individual pieces to avoid considering two disorderly conclusions, and we side with the characters playing roles that are most recognizable to us.
But what is this movie about exactly? It is maddeningly unclear what it is about, and that is what makes Melancholia difficult but also very different. The last scene of the movie makes you face what LvT has been nagging you to see the entire time: that ALL of your assumptions were wrong. Everything you thought about the characters and the plot was opposite from how it is in reality and the entire movie instantaneously becomes opposite from the film you just thought that you saw. The film can be seen simultaneously from multiple perspectives and you choose to see the scene from the wrong one. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes Kristin Dunst’s acting so incredible, that she had to play each scene in a way that allowed for such a subtle amount of interpretation. Justine’s many irresponsible choices, the physical weakness of her sickness (crippling depression — melancholia) and the moral weakness of refusing to conform to the social order, all come into focus as you realize in light of her intuition, all of her actions make complete sense. Kristin Dunst won the award for Best Actress at Cannes but as award season gets underway; she is favored to win many more.
Is LvT to blame for our baffling lapse in judgment? Maybe it is literature that is to blame. In that fascinating way an author (or in this case auteur) imperceptibly controls the cultural cues and images so imbued in the fabric of our society, that they are able get into your head and convince you to make the wrong assumptions.
In this respect, the movie is actually about the viewer and our assumptions about the characters and the plot that are as imperceptible your own breathing. LvT does stack the deck to influence your perceptions, but he simultaneously, from the opening scene, warns the viewer of what the final outcome is and that Justine is special. In fact, the opening pre-credits scene foreshadows the most important moments in the film — including its end. The chair rattling classical music, Tristan and Isolde, is like the voice of LvT as he seeks to draw attention to these telling moments.
Beyond playing with your expectations, there is a message although there is a great deal of disagreement among the critics about just what that message is. Understandably the title Melancholia leads many to a narrow interpretation about the illness LvT knows intimately, depression. But it seems indisputable that Justine is giftedly self-aware, and intuitive. I don’t know whether that is a side effect of depression, that she is able to dispense with all of the conventional concerns that preoccupy the ‘normal people’ around her. There seems to be a greater truth or “magic” that Justine is in touch with that in the end is all that really matters.
More than a film, Melancholia is like watching literature on a movie screen. In great books, scenes can be read from more than one angle, and each chapter illuminates the previous ones in a different way. It is unusual for a film to be layered so successfully and yet be as accessible as is Melancholia. It is difficult to overstate the amount of patience required to let this movie finally come into focus at the very end. At its most dramatic, the pace of Melancholia is deliberately slow, the characters are opaque, and crucial context remains missing. It is these; let’s say weaknesses that engineer the space for Melancholia to become literature.