By Don Simpson | November 15, 2011
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Udo Kier
The prologue of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which is orchestrated to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, contains some of the most unforgettably mesmerizing images that have been projected on the silver screen this year. What the images mean, however, is totally up for grabs. Is it a precursor of what is to come? Is it merely a red herring? Or is it a glimpse into the manically depressed mind of Justine (Kirsten Dunst)?
We meet Justine as she travels with her fiance Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) inside an obnoxiously extravagant stretch limo on a winding dirt road to their wedding. This is the first of countless criticisms of the upper class that von Trier has to offer in Melancholia. I must admit, as a jab at the Capitalist system and the superficial opulence of the über rich, Melancholia works incredibly well.
Von Trier’s crosshairs find Justine’s brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), the owner of the magnificent estate where Justine and Michael’s wedding takes place. Though money is certainly no object for John — his property boasts an 18 (or 19) hole golf course for crissakes! — he has no qualms about constantly reminding Justine about how much he paid for her wedding. While Justine seems totally uninterested in the lavishness that surrounds her; it is abundantly clear that the wedding serves as a power trip for John, it is merely an excuse for John to flaunt his wealth. Oh, the indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie!
Actually, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård) — Justine’s ad-agency boss — might even be more evil than John. Despite being Michael’s best man at the wedding, Jack is focused on one thing: getting a tagline out of his ace copywriter, on this her wedding day. Jack’s vacuous persona is fueled only by greed; he cares nothing about Justine’s happiness or mental well-being, all he wants is a successful advertising campaign.
Justine’s patronizingly maternal older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), treats Justine’s low-functioning clinical depression as if it is all just a ruse. It seems Claire wanted to invest so much [of John’s] money into Justine’s wedding because she believes that money (and meatloaf!) can fix everything. Claire is also a firm believer in ritual and tradition which is why she hired the world’s most expensive wedding planner (Udo Kier) to orchestrate Justine’s wedding. A perfect wedding will solve all of Justine’s woes, Claire is certain of that! Von Trier goes to extreme lengths to lay out the drastic differences between Justine and Claire. Their physical appearances (and accents) could not be more different; but it is their polarizing personal philosophies on life and existence that von Trier really cares about. Claire wants to perpetuate the human race. She is a mother and a wife; family and social gatherings are of paramount importance to her. Justine, on the other hand, does not believe in God, an afterlife, or purpose to humankind’s existence; but, first and foremost, she is a loner.
Then, there is the sisters’ exaggeratedly brash and cantankerous mother (Charlotte Rampling). She is a chillingly horrific human being who uses her wedding toast as a chance to insult the bride and the groom, as well as the institution of marriage. Does this woman even have a soul? Oh, and their libertine father (John Hurt) brings two Betty’s — he dubs all women “Betty” — to Justine’s wedding. Stumbling around his daughter’s wedding in an alcohol-fueled daze, Betty’s are all that matter to him. Justine attempts to confide in each of her parents, but they both blow her off. With a family like this, it is no wonder Justine’s depression is so severe.
Every single character in Melancholia is caricature of a horrible and unlikable person, utterly unworthy of the audience’s sympathy — or interest, for that matter. If this is what the human race has become, maybe it is better that they all become extinct — or at least that is von Trier’s direly pessimistic attitude that Justine channels for him. It no surprise then that Justine emerges as the film’s strongest character, because von Trier truly craves for the audience to agree with Justine when she says “the Earth is evil, no one will grieve for it.”
I sense that for von Trier Melancholia is a fantastic wet dream, not a nightmare; and as pessimistic as my personal world view is, I am definitely not ready to go as far as adopting von Trier’s outlook. To do so would be suicidal, because how could anyone live in a world as dismal as the one von Trier reveals to us? Really. I have seen some very bleak films during my life (several were directed by von Trier), but Melancholia is the bleakest of them all. But, then again, von Trier is not the type of director who wants his audience to meekly coalesce into a unified theater of yes men; he is an agitator, he wants the audience to react, to despise him, to rally against him. The problem with von Trier’s mentality is that it will more than likely prompt most audiences to hate Melancholia.
While Kirsten Dunst gives a performance that is worthy of an Oscar nod, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland are forced to make the most of their one-note characters; and it is the shallow characterizations that are exactly what makes me question the directorial legitimacy of Melancholia. I feel like von Trier is cheating — or at least taking shortcuts — by relying on characters who are flimsily constructed with cheap stereotypes of bad human qualities. These are not real people, they are cinematic representations of negative personality traits.
Though I enjoy the way von Trier uses the menagerie of accents to blur the film’s sense of place and add a profound level of disassociation among Justine’s family unit, the accents are also very distracting. Again von Trier is being an agitator — the accents make the audience fully aware of the falsity of Justine’s family unit, that these characters are being portrayed by a group of actors who are not related. (I suspect von Trier purposefully cast Stellan Skarsgård and his son Alexander as friends — not family — to further play upon his cinematic representation of family.)
Melancholia‘s biggest flaw is in its Frankenstein’s monster of a narrative structure. The luscious imagery of prologue does not belong with the body of the film, just as the first half (“Justine”) of the film’s body does not go with the second half (“Claire”). It is as if von Trier knew how he wanted to start and end the film; but since he did not know how to get from point A to point B, he just cuts right to it. Von Trier uses his directorial hand to get Justine back to John and Claire’s estate — there is no flow, no arc, no logic, no motivation. The transitions (or lack thereof) between the three parts are jarring — which is probably von Trier’s intention, but as with von Trier’s other agitating techniques, the end result seems downright sloppy.