The latest film from the enfant terrible of the European arthouse may be the most commercial work yet produced by this mercurial talent. Melancholia is a film about two sisters, Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). Set in and around a country estate hotel and golf club owned by Claire’s wealthy husband John (Sutherland, in his best role since 24's Jack Bauer).
Divided into two halves, the film’s first section shows the events of one night as the hotel is given over to Justine’s lavish wedding reception. As friends, colleagues and family gather the event gradually spins out of control due to Justine’s depression and the eruption of simmering resentments between the guests. The second section deals with the aftermath of these events as Claire tries to help Justine out of her illness, but is herself revealed to be recovering from past mental traumas (these are never made explicit, but she is often referred to by her brusque husband as “sensitive”).
If this all sounds like a simple domestic drama, you should know that looming in the background (and then very much taking centre stage) is the rogue planet Melancholia, a massive world passing through our solar system. Hidden behind the sun on its approach, Melancholia threatens to collide with the Earth, extinguishing all life in a cataclysmic extinction level event.
It is clear from the films’ pre-credits opening that this is not going to be a standard drama. Von Trier begins with a cinematic overture, a series of stunning images shot in super slow motion. Among them: Gainsbourg running across a golf green carrying a child as her feet sink into the earth; Dunst walking in a billowing wedding dress encumbered by Lovecraftian tendrils of darkness; a horse collapsing on a well kept lawn. These images are accompanied by thundering music from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.
This is going to be a divisive work, and many people are going to fall completely for its doomed classicism. Equally there will be many viewers grumpily thinking to themselves that John seems like the only character in the film talking a lick of sense. I was unconvinced by the depiction of depression presented by Justine; often her character comes across as cruel in her relationships with Claire and her hopeless fiancé (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), or ridiculously histrionic (as when she eats a mouthful of the meatloaf Claire has prepared as comfort food and wails “it tastes of ashes!”).
Justine tells Claire that she welcomes the end of the world, that life is only on Earth and it is evil. It’s hard to judge if von Trier agrees, as he never shows a world beyond the plush country club and hotel. Apart from the hotel manager and a tart performance from Udo Kier as a very expensive wedding planner, the only characters on display are of wealth and privilege. In all honesty, they could all use a good slap, but the end of life on earth seems an excessive punishment. Still this is von Trier and it’s perfectly possible he has his tongue in his cheek (although I suspect he is more serious about his art than his public image suggests).
Throughout the film von Trier borrows images and ideas from the fine art. Melancholia seems to exemplify some of the central tenets of the German Sturm und Drang movement, which prized individual subjectivity and extremes of emotion in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. There are further images and ideas taken from 18th century romanticism, and the Pre-Raphelites. I don’t have an art history degree, but even I couldn’t help but be struck by his appropriation of John Everett Millais’ painting Ophilia. It’s not just in the use of Wagner and the direct appropriation of images from fine art that lend weight to this reading, von Trier is more sympathetic towards Justine and Claire (both characters who are given to extremes of emotion) than the rational John, who is convinced that because the majority of scientific opinion holds that Melancholia presents no threat to the Earth, then it must be so.
I can’t claim to be an authority on classical art, but it is impossible to watch this film and not recognise at least some of the references that are in there. After Tarantino and Grindhouse’s plundering of B-movies and exploitation, it is somewhat refreshing to see a filmmaker decide to ransack an art gallery rather than a comic store for inspiration. If the Tate were to run a lecture on the art being referenced here and it’s meaning, I would be first in line.If Melancholia were hanging around the student union bar it would be wearing a black poloneck, smoking expensive imported Gauloise cigarettes and acting all superior. I found the film preposterous and cold but undeniably well made and it does achieve moments of grace, beauty and power unlike any other film I’ve seen this year.
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary by Von Trier; interviews with the cast and crew; the featurette The New Mecca of Cinema; the theatrical trailer.