Lars Von Trier’s latest notorious baby is the least violent, and yet the most obliterating entry in his ongoing cinema of emotional assault. Pensive, timely and acutely understated, Melancholia taps into a state of mind more than it does into plot development. The eponymous “fly-by” planet hits the Earth in the opening sequence, which may be a prophecy, a dream, or a post-apocalyptic afterthought of the main character, Justine (Kirsten Dunst). The end of the world is by turns feared, awaited and/or denied for the remaining 120 minutes, but not even the final image of fiery destruction can match Dunst’s fiercely despondent eyes from the opening shot. When dead birds start falling behind her in slo-mo, it’s like nature’s answer to her defiant, hopeless look.
The cosmic tone is firmly established in a series of high-concept visions set to Wagner, which is then willfully imploded by a mundane follow-up which devotes an equal amount of screen time to a comic scene of navigating a stretch limo on a country road. This double opening – by transporting us in a single stroke from the domain of Tarkovsky to that of a Long, Long Trailer – testifies to Von Trier’s cunning.
The first half of the movie, depicting a wedding gone awry, is a hilarious riff on Dogma-like realism, embellished with some wacky humor (courtesy of Udo Kier’s facepalm-variation) and stunning outdoor interludes, in which a golf course becomes an artificially-lit stage for the comic (and cosmic) insignificance of human endeavors. The wedding is well-attended, but thanks to Von Trier’s handling of the camera, it feels hardly populated. There are only about six speaking parts in the whole hour-long sequence, and we get no folksy vignettes of colorful uncles and drunk aunts. This wedding is the stage for Justine’s crackdown, and as such feels weirdly claustrophobic.
Wagner’s ominously grand and unashamedly lyrical Tristan und Isolde overture, played no less than nine times at different points and majestically amplified in the last shot, comes close to being the only music present in the film – and thus the only music possible in the world of Melancholia. Beethoven’s celebratory Ninth Symphony is knocked down by Justine as irrelevant, thus confirming Trier’s fixation on the sweeping symphonic sadness. (The only other music used in the film comes in the wedding sequence: there are some hilariously Muzak-ized versions of “La Bamba” and, rather pointedly, “Fly Me to the Moon.”)
The second part of Melancholia focuses on Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her fear of the fly-by hitting the Earth, no matter what her can-do husband (Jack Bauer, no less) says. The tone of this section is serious, the beauty fleeting, and yet the whole concept smacks of something sophomoric in its stripped-bare-for-soul-wrestling design.
My guess is that you either get engrossed in Melancholia totally and irrevocably, or you laugh it off as stuck-up and pretentious – depending on what kind of day you’re having. The movie is non-denominational (the word “God” is never uttered), non-national (Dunst and Gainsbourg play sisters, although the former sports an American accent, and the latter a British one), non-geographical (where is this place? Marienbad…?), and non-Marxist (the characters’ affluence isn’t an issue, merely a fact of life). What it is, is intoxicating.
Michał Oleszczyk is a contributor to “Kino”, the Polish film monthly and author of the first Polish monograph of Terence Davies (“Bitter Exile”, Kraków 2008).