Most creators of disaster movies make some effort to ensure you hope for the survival of their characters.
No, wait, let’s be more specific. I’ll start again. Most filmmakers making movies about the apocalypse show at least a small degree of concern for the fate of humankind. The directors and screenwriters churning out these end-of-the-world disasters may loathe themselves, their partners, their kids and every second car that blocks their path on Sunset, but they can at least dredge up a tiny amount of love for their fellow homo sapiens when producing their own particular takes on Earth’s impending final curtain.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that the Roland Emmerich films 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day have figures as well-tested for likeability as Will Smith, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Cusack and Jeff Goldblum onscreen outwitting rising tides and waves of aliens. John’s got those doe eyes, after all. Will makes wisecracks. Jake’s got that man-child vulnerability thing going on. Jeff’s quirky science nerds were so popular they became blockbuster requisites. Sadly Hollywood assumes that its audiences are so stupid that we need to like these central characters in order to be reminded that – YES! – we actually like our fellow humans just about enough to disapprove of the entire race being wiped out. We don’t want this little Earth party to end! We need John to save his family to give us hope! We need Morgan Freeman’s silken-voiced President Beck to tell us it’ll all be OK! Hell, we need Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Billy Bob Thornton to get on top of that there incoming asteroid and kick its ass all the way back to where it done came from. (The vacuum at the very core of Michael Bay, perhaps? I’ve often wondered whether those responsible for casting Armageddon just went through a list of actors whose names begin with the letter ‘B’ and made some random ticks here and there. Steve Buscemi must have been listed as ‘Buscemi, Steve’.)
Well, if anyone’s going to buck this trend it’s Lars von Trier. Melancholia is his take on Earth getting smashed to smithereens by a passing planet (the giant Melancholia of the title) and it certainly doesn’t play by the usual rules. (Lest we forget, von Trier makes and imposes them rather than follows them.)
His Melancholia is every bit as unusual, as beautiful and as poetic as I hoped it would be. It begins with a ten-minute prelude which introduces the main characters in a strange slow-motion montage. Though its cryptic references to art are pretentious and the crashing classical soundtrack somewhat overblown, the opening is perhaps von Trier’s biggest concession to the grand nature of what is at stake ahead. I was hooked, even if I was wondering what the hell I was going to be watching for the next two hours. The opening feels like a paean to the skies, all brightly-moonlit scenes interspersed with the looming, threatening presence of Melancholia itself, which we eventually see hitting us square on the jaw; it all looks fantastic, and much credit must go to von Trier’s cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro.
After the opening sequence the film settles down somewhat, and is split into two parts. These halves depict the relationship between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg); the first incorporates Justine’s wedding and the second deals with her subsequent depression and recovery, aided by Claire. Throughout the first half a bright red star named Antares looms in the sky, which is eventually eclipsed in the second part by the much larger Melancholia. For most of the first half of the film Antares is ignored or barely acknowledged by the supporting cast, creating a very odd sensation, as though the only way people are able to deal with this odd occurrence is to ignore it. In the second half the appearance of Melancholia poses a much greater threat, though we learn at one point that astronomers, by and large, are ambivalent at best to the idea of a collision with the Earth.
Justine’s wedding to the uncomplicated Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard) is a haughty, frosty affair. John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling briefly cameo as the sisters’ divorced parents Dexter and Gaby, and in a superbly tense scene both give wedding speeches that are excruciatingly bitter towards and laced with disdain for the gathered family members. Sadly this is Hurt and Rampling’s only scene together in the film, and it is an absurdly tense one, given the celebratory nature we expect to see at a wedding. In hindsight it seems to me like a smart move by von Trier to actually keep them apart afterwards, increasing that scene’s importance in setting an uneasy, uncomfortable tone.
This interpersonal coldness is echoed throughout the cast. Claire’s wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) kicks his own mother-in-law out of the hotel/exclusive golf resort where the wedding is taking place. Justine seems so disinterested in her new husband and his plans that she cheats on him hours after tying the knot, having sex on the golf course with a new intern from her workplace. Stellan Skarsgaard plays Jack, who doubles as Michael’s best man and Justine’s angry ad agency boss, repeatedly pressuring his star employee on work matters despite it being her wedding day.
With the possible exception of Claire, these characters have long since dispensed with the idea that they, as colleagues or members of a family, ought to respect and support each other. The air is filled with contempt, a lack of understanding and long-standing issues that have not been addressed. They seem to despise one another; they are joined together by circumstance alone and it’s difficult to warm to any of them. At von Trier’s end of the world there are no wisecracks, no doe-eyes, no nerdy science geeks and certainly no likeable man-children. Other than a brief reference to a nearby town and an even briefer mention of the internet, there is no sense of a wider world in Melancholia and there is no indication as to where the action is taking place. Given all of the above, I felt like I was being dared by this wryest of directors to give two shits about the destruction of the Earth.
In the second half, though, there is something resembling a small degree of heart as the film approaches its bleak, already-revealed ending. Von Trier strips the cast back, and the only characters that remain are Justine, Claire, John and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr). The post-wedding Justine struggles with crippling depression but gradually recovers under the care of her sister as Melancholia closes in. Claire becomes the focus here, though, and she tries to comfort Leo while growing ever more frantic at the approach of the planet and her husband’s denials about the potential for impact. This brings the film onto something approaching an even keel; compared to the first half the impending impact and end of the world is played more like a straightforward drama.
Both Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst have been applauded for their performances in Melancholia. Dunst’s Justine is curiously aloof during her wedding, showing signs that all is not well, and she is terrific in the second half, giving as believable an impression of the debilitating aspects of depression that I’ve seen on screen. Her behaviour is tied in mysteriously with Antares and Melancholia, and with her premonitions and aloofness she remains an intriguing character all the way up to the end of the film, prone to deadpan, unfeeling outbursts like “Life is only on Earth. And not for long” (Hey, Roland Emmerich: There’s your next tag line!). Eventually she seems to be at peace with the forthcoming end of the world, with Dunst bringing a subtle, quiet, resigned sadness to her part. Gainsbourg is also superb, travelling emotionally the opposite way to her sister, with increased tension and concern as the planet closes in. Both the leads are filled with different, but well-realised, senses of melancholia and we end up watching something extremely rare as a result: a very feminine disaster movie containing characters that fail to deliver any sense of hope whatsoever.
Some critics have suggested Melancholia is completely bereft of emotion, which is a point that I completely disagree with. That said it is at times an extremely cold film, with no hope and no light, but I enjoyed its unusual, strange tone. It is visually stunning and there are no weak performances across the entire cast. In making an atypical disaster film, von Trier cleverly challenges the weightlessness and unthinking, flippant nature often exhibited by the typical ones coming out of the USA mentioned above. He has shown the absurdity of pitting one central character against the end of the world, even if those films are often very entertaining. The viewer’s individual taste will dictate whether Melancholia provides enough substance to answer this challenge. For me, it’s a shrug and a “maybe”, I’m sorry to report.
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
Running Time: 130 Minutes