#49 — Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
What happens when a cinematic provocateur turns their attention to the inner turmoil of a person? When the instinct to rattle the audience with a bleak consideration of the futility of existence manifests as a deeply empathetic portrait of a person wracked by enveloping sadness? Danish director Lars von Trier is a creator with the compulsions of a feral animal, swiping at the audience with poison-tipped claws and then quizzically scrutinizing the damage he’s inflected. It’s undeniable that his work has an impact, but it’s reasonable to muse about where the cost is worth it. In Melancholia, I’d say it is. And I’d go even further, posing the argument that everything that makes his typical approach so unbearably caustic in turn gives him the means to properly express what it’s like to endure deep wells of depression.
Melancholia largely follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst), introduced on her wedding day. As the narrative begins, Justine and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) are woefully late for their own reception, delayed because their oversized limousine conveyance has difficulty navigating the winding, rustic roads leading to the estate that serves as the site for the celebration. It is the first of many ill turns, and Justine spends most of the night descending into a funk, which Dunst acts with wounding exactitude. Between the performance and von Trier’s disconcerting staging of scenes, the obvious and increasing fuzziness of Justine’s mind is almost transferred to the viewer like a virus, a feeling only compounded by the film’s second half, set some time later, when Justine’s condition has progressed to the point that’s she practically incapacitated.
Part of the way von Trier strengthens the impact of Justine’s story is by providing an explanation for her cage of misery. Earth is doomed, she believes, poised to be obliterated by a massive celestial object hurtling through space on a collision course. Scientists are predicting the oncoming mass of rock, a rogue planet dubbed Melancholia, will rush by without causing harm, but Justine knows better. She believes unequivocally — she has faith, basically — that the end is at hand. The fantastical circumstance is a cunning metaphor for the way the awareness of mortality is a burden. Although it might be positioned as nihilism or even a sign of mental illness, subscribing to Justine’s view that the trappings of society are pointless is the pinnacle of rationality. When the only guarantee to life is that it will snap away to nothingness in a moment, everything is cheap distraction.
That thesis is bleak, and von Trier revels in the misery he concocts. But Melancholia doesn’t lapse into a sadistic assault on the audience, mostly due to Dunst’s ravishing, sorrowful performance. As was the case with Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, von Trier’s magnum opus from fifteen years earlier, the lead actress is crucial to elevating the artistry of the film through the committed insertion of humanity. Without Dunst’s careful, heartfelt work, Melancholia could easily devolve into a dramatic bludgeon. There is more to the film than that, precisely because Dunst brings an invaluable depth of feeling to the central role and, by extension, the entire film. On the angry, majestic landscape rendered by von Trier, Dunst steps forward and sketches an indelible map of the human soul.