Birds tumble softly from the ether; a woman gazes at her hands as they give off sparks; a horse collapses to the ground like an old barn; a woman clutching a child sinks deeper into a darkened golf course; a bride sinks into the surface of a stream or trudges through forest only to be snared by roots. All of this unfolds in extremely slow slow-motion, as though some collective will is urging time to a standstill. And you can see why. The end is nigh. Mind you, it’ll take a while to actually get there.
Had I, for whatever reason, had to exit the theatre after the prologue of Melancholia, an astonishing, kind of devastating sequence heavily indebted to more masters of contemporary photo-based art than you could squueze into a year at ICP, set to the romantic bombast of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, I would surely have thought I’d seen the first ten minutes of some rapturous masterpiece. But I stayed, or rather stuck it out, and remembered I was in Lars Land, a place where flights of genius are undermined by lengthy digressions imbued with didacticism, smugness, cynicism and sadomasochistic projections of the author’s disorders onto the opposite sex.
Lars von Trier: maker of some unforgettable images, brilliant conceptualist, shit storyteller. I think I’ve done the image bit, so let’s get to Lars the conceptualist. Melancholia has two parts, two sisters, two disasters. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) shows up two hours later for her insanely lavish wedding reception at a castle. Once she arrives things just get worse: mom (Charlotte Rampling) delivers the most withering wedding speech in history before locking herself in the bathroom and Justine slips ever deeper into debilitating depression. She can barely make it through the night, though disappearing for long spells, telling off her boss and jumping some nervous stranger’s bones seems to help. By dawn, the damage is unrepairable, the marriage still-born. The groom ultimately leaves without her.
After the wedding Claire (Charlotte Rampling) determines to take care of Justine, who’s now verging on catatonic—there’s a painful scene where Claire simply can’t get Justine to step into a hot bath... and that bath looks pretty nice! Claire becomes increasingly preoccupied with the news that a planet called Melancholia has been hiding behind the sun and now seems to be on a collision course with Earth. As apocalypse looms, Claire, quite understandably, becomes hysterical, while Claire's husband (Kiefer Sutherland) turns out to be of no help and Justine is increasingly becalmed and not nice to her at all.
As I summarize all this I realize how much I admire the raw ideas behind Melancholia, the balance of it, that juxtaposition of the individual crisis with the infinite that makes it the nihilist cousin to The Tree of Life. As I think through my experience of Melancholia I have to admit that it was definitely made by someone who really, really gets depression. The problems all come in the way we meander through the story without pace or punctuation, the way we’re meant to bask in the ostensibly clever portraits of one-dimensional or only semi-coherent characters who are mostly just assholes. Everyone, generally, is cruel, though the men tend to be weaklings while the women at least have a certain integrity—and, as with so much von Trier (see Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, et cetera), that integrity is what ensures their doom. So we watch and we wait for von Trier to do whatever it takes to twist his plots into awkward, sometimes plain stupid knots so as to completely screw over his heroine (though Dogville, it must be said, attempted to reverse this somewhat by allowing its heroine a climatic revenge). We worry, we do indeed feel the burgeoning unease, something von Trier is indeed highly skilled at inducing, and we wait. And the waiting can be tedious.