Despair engulfs you as you watch this film. You can feel it rising in every scene; a sense of dread, and powerlessness; something primordial, and filled with awe. But it isn’t depressing in the way you might expect. There’s nothing small or dreary on show here. Depression isn’t represented in real world terms. It’s another world; literally, a planet called Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth. It’s been “hiding behind the sun” (we’re informed, in a very droll piece of exposition). Now it comes to swallow us. All the love in the world might as well be dirt. All our achievements will come to nothing. Melancholia (the film) is a high tragedy, like half of all operas. When we see into the void, we’re meant to be swept away.
I admired this film’s vaulting disregard for the viewer. No attempt is made whatsoever to put us ease. In Act I, we’re presented with the most hellish wedding imaginable. In Act II, the world ends. Kirsten Dunst plays more a vengeful goddess than a sympathetic heroine. You pity her husband when she asks him: “What did you expect?” This is a Lars von Trier film. It’s like a cave painting or one of Mark Rothko’s late works: inescapable. The frilly comforts of a wedding reception are swiftly destroyed as Dunst launches into depression. Her misery-wracked bride is our guide to the film. It’s she who first spots the planet Melancholia in the night sky. It’s also she who tells the audience: “Life is only on Earth. And not for long.”
In a spellbinding sequence at the beginning, we see a strange montage of images projected in slow-motion: Dunst, in her wedding gown; Charlotte Gainsbourg, sinking into a golf course; a young boy, sharpening a spear; a black stallion, falling to the ground. All this set to the prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde; a lush, majestic score, full of heartache and grand passion. You have no idea what’s going on, but almost immediately, you give in to it. Once again, Lars von Trier has opened the floodgates of his imagination. He wants to stage the apocalypse, and he does so with aplomb. Not since Ingmar Bergman has a director been so inspired by despair. It’s what keeps the film from being intolerable. Even the planet that comes to obliterate us looks ravishing. Whatever Melancholia’s faults, you have to marvel at its vision. Life might not be beautiful, if you’re Lars von Trier, but it is mind-blowing.
Don’t bother looking at the men. Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skarsgård might as well have stayed home. As always, tortured women are at the heart of this film, as in every movie from this director. Kirsten Dunst is going to drag herself to Hell, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is going to have to watch, helplessly. There’s no let up for either of them once the eponymous planet starts to approach. Charlotte’s child won’t be spared just because he’s a kid. He picked the wrong mother, and the wrong movie, for a happy childhood. Those who accuse Lars von Trier of misogyny will see their proof when Dunst instigates the end of the world, but she’s also one of his most nuanced portraits of a woman living under terrible strain.
There’s no trace of the ingénue Kirsten Dunst in this film. She climbs into the pit of this woman’s life, and you see her eyes go dead. It isn’t a showy performance. Instead, she draws strength from being remote. Dunst is brilliant at suggesting the unbridgeable distance between her character and those around her. You only have to glance her way to know she’s utterly alone. Depression has blighted her; it’s as if her heart had withered away. She knows she’s beyond solace. Even sex can’t bring her joy. Sibling relations are stretched to the limit by events, and Dunst takes pleasure, at times, in tormenting her sister. The audience isn’t asked to like her in this film. We’re meant to suffer with her. She acts as our catharsis.
The Irish novelist Flann O’Brien once wrote: “Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable.” Critics would say the same of Melancholia. It’s fair to say, the potential audience for this film is small. I’d be lying if I said it was “entertaining” to watch. But there is a point to what Lars von Trier is doing here. The use of Tristan und Isolde offers us a good clue. Wagner was influenced by Schopenhauer when he wrote the opera; especially the philosopher’s theory of how man’s suffering is caused by unachievable desires. In this film, a woman longs to sever all ties. When the planet Melancholia smashes into Earth, she is, at last, relinquished.