The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Melancholia

Written by Paul Cuff.

Photo from the article I admit that I find Von Trier’s provocative sense of humour bizarrely endearing. After watching Antichrist (2009), I left the cinema wondering if I’d seen a colossal joke disguised as a masterpiece or a masterpiece disguised as a colossal joke. (I’ve still not made up my mind.) Whether or not Von Trier knows when he’s being serious or not is another matter (witness his infamous comments about being a Nazi at this year’s Cannes Film Festival). The director seems always to be teetering on the edge of bursting out laughing at his audience. Anyone who has seen his 1994-7 TV series Riget will remember Von Trier’s appearances at the end of each episode, dressed in a cheap tuxedo and bow-tie, delivering a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the plot and asking us to stay tuned.

Not knowing quite what to expect, I found Melancholia to be a captivatingly strange film. Though the scale of its subject-matter outdoes Antichrist’s horrific exploration of psychological degeneration, Melancholia is ultimately a more sober study of depression. As with his previous film, Von Trier transforms realistic elements into a carefully stylized story.

The film’s untitled prologue (which it might be more accurate to call a “premonition”) is a remarkable series of extreme slow-motion images, accompanied by the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan. The near-dissonant, unresolved chords provide an aural equivalent to the vision’s temporal distortion. These images seem to catch in your throat, uncanny and unsettling. A huge planet looms over the horizon. Claire carries a child across grass that sinks under her feet (a perfect evocation of that moment in our dreams when we want to run, but our legs are unbearably heavy and refuse to move). Justine floats in a river of tangled weeds like Millais’ Ophelia. Dead birds tumble from the sky. A horse buckles and collapses to the ground, its flesh rippling in grotesquely beautiful waves. Streaks of electricity unwind like luminous worms from Justine’s fingertips. She drags her wedding dress through a forest, her drapery dragging in moss and soil and seeming to moulder into ragged chains during her achingly slow progress. Earth is engulfed by Melancholia and breaks apart. Wagner’s music swells and fades out as the screen collapses into darkness - an incessant roar of deep, rumbling bass makes the floor of the cinema vibrate and shudder.


Antichrist also opened with a visual/musical prelude - artfully mixing an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo, extreme sexual imagery, and stylized slow-motion. As with so much of that film, the sequence was both hauntingly beautiful and faintly ridiculous. Melancholia’s prelude was as disturbingly brilliant as the slow-motion images of animals in Antichrist (most famously the talking fox), hitting the same note of uncomfortable, hyper-realism: reality slowed down to the point of surreality. It is a gloriously disquieting start.

After the title-card, written in Von Trier’s now familiar style of handwritten text scrawled in chalk, the film announces its first half: “Part 1: Justine”. Having been entranced and disturbed by the prelude, it was a strange relief to find myself smiling and laughing within minutes’ of the first main scenes. The wedding reception lets the film’s (extensive) cast play out the complex web of family and business relationships that form the background to Justine’s marriage to Michael. I would single out Stellan Skarsgård, who gives a wonderful performance as Jack - an advertizing executive whose surface charm barely masks his vicious, domineering ambition. John Hurt plays Dexter - Justine and Claire’s charming, but unreliable, father. (He amuses two flirtatious young girls by stealing spoons and asking the waiter for more - a piece of calculated charm that almost masks the poignantly cruel attitude to the staff.) In a smaller role, Udo Kier is a brilliantly effete wedding planner, camply outraged at Justine’s increasingly wayward behaviour.


The wedding festivities are reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) a Dogme film about dark secrets emerging at a family birthday party. Von Trier’s film maintains some of the same tensions between surface respectability and concealed violence. The handheld camerawork, the rhythmically unpredictable editing, even the performances themselves, seem to constantly presage the humour giving way to something far nastier. As Justine struggles to maintain the pretence of happy order, so Von Trier’s wandering camera always threatens to catch something unexpected - a glance, gesture, or word that might tip the situation on its head. Her marriage having collapsed within hours, Justine’s anxious glances up into the sky remind us of a far greater trauma she must soon face. The film’s first half ends with Claire and Justine riding on horseback through the mist-shrouded grounds of the estate, an aerial camera silently following their path, presaging the path of Melancholia towards the Earth.

“Part 2: Claire” opens some time later, when Justine is so deeply depressed she can barely eat, bathe, or even stand. In the same way that Antichrist’s primary interest was extreme grief and a woman’s descent into madness, so Melancholia is concerned with mental illness. Von Trier has admitted he suffers from depression and that filmmaking is something of a cathartic experience; he supposedly got the idea for Melancholia during a therapy session. The film has little of the visceral shock Antichrist possessed - Von Trier’s imagery is often beguilingly beautiful. The film’s near-fairytale setting is the fin-de-siècle mansion of Tjolöholm in Sweden, whose grounds end in the waters of a fjord. Such a spacious, organized space creates a surreal environment for the steadfastly naturalistic performances. The perfect stretches of lawn and rows of manicured trees are the fantastic backdrop to the images of Melancholia rising like a second moon in the sky. In their own way, the isolated mansion and its grounds are as strangely absurd and empty as the bare sound-stage of Dogville (2003).


If the second half of Melancholia might feel less compelling than the first, it’s probably because the ensemble cast is reduced to four characters: Justine, Claire, John (her husband), and Leo (their son). Stripped down to its main protagonists, the film’s second half is an austere contrast to the first. Indeed, as the planet Melancholia approaches Earth, the film becomes more resigned. Justine, who knows deep depression first-hand, is more able to cope with the idea of extinction than Claire, whose own neuroses start to emerge. Claire scours the internet for doomsday prophecies and immediately buys a lethal amount of pills in the event of disaster. Her organizational skills, evidenced in her wedding plans, are shown to have their neurotic flipside. In Part 1, Claire struggles to control Justine’s behaviour; in Part 2, Claire is the one whose self-control abandons her. Antichrist was famously accused famously accused of being “the most misogynistic film ever made” due its portrayal of female hysteria. In Melancholia, equally concerned with the mental health of female characters, the men prove even less resilient. At the wedding reception, Jack’s promotion of Justine is instantly undone (just as his trainee’s comic offer of partnership is utterly hollow), Michael cannot satisfy or help Justine, Justine’s father runs off when she needs him the most, John eventually abandons Claire and Leo. Despite (and, indeed, because of) her depression, Justine is the strongest and calmest figure in the crisis.

John’s faith in the scientists’ calculations and impatience with the “unreliable” behaviour of his in-law’s family mark him (initially) as a comically put-upon husband. Yet his wealth and sense of self-importance gradually undermine any sympathy we might have with him. As earlier in the film, there are deftly handled glimpses of cruelty. When John is carrying his equipment onto the veranda, his butler (Jesper Christensen) offers to help. John coldly, quietly states: “You don’t touch the telescope”. Yet again, the unspoken tension between masters and servants is articulated. Ironically, his steadfast control and rationalism is absolutely incapable of coping with the idea of death. When it becomes clear that his calculations are wrong and Earth will collide with Melancholia after all, John commits suicide in the stables, curling up like an animal in the hay.


There is a melancholic inevitability that haunts the film - apparent from the outset in the opening images’ promise of death. The characters’ repeated attempts to cross the same bridge and reach the (forever unseen) village all fail. The characters can no more leave their estate than escape from their own inner demons. The depressive (Justine) resigns herself to annihilation (“The Earth is evil”, anyway), the rationalist (John) kills himself, and the reliable organizer (Claire) succumbs to her suppressed fears. Faced with a seemingly inescapable descent into depression, the destruction of the world by Melancholia seems a transparent metaphor for mental crisis.

If the film’s second half feels cold, it is perhaps because it adopts the same depressive acceptance of death that Justine shows. (Then again, I might have a different opinion if I’d worn a warmer jumper in the cinema.) Justine, Claire, and Leo quietly sit together and hold hands as the world ends. The prologue’s visionary premonitions are realized - the inevitable annihilation takes place. Melancholia engulfs the characters. The screen again plunges into black. I was left in a darkened auditorium, the floor rumbling beneath me, gloomily exultant.

This Alternate Take was published on November 02, 2011.

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