Once upon a time, happiness was something to be avoided at all costs. The reason for this bizarre rule of thumb was that true happiness was said to be the sole preserve of the afterlife, a gift given by a loving God in return for our trust and obedience. Life was a vale of tears where our Faith and resolve were tested and tested again. If we were happy then chances were that we had taken our eye off the ball and given in to Satan as happiness-now almost invariably lead to misery-later, an eternity of misery in fact. As a result, happiness was something that happened to other folks once they died. With the Renaissance came a two-fold rejection of God’s feudalism: Not only was life driven by the pursuit of happiness, people were opting for happiness-now over Grace and Salvation-later.
When happiness became the end point of human existence, pain and suffering took on an altogether different character. Under Christianity, pain and suffering had been tangible proof of God’s promise that the meek would inherit the Earth and that worldly happiness is only fleeting when compared to the infinite joy of union with the Godhead. Under the grand ideologies of the Enlightenment’s children, pain and suffering were things to be extinguished either by revolution (surgery) or by reform (chemotherapy). Now our culture no longer sees misery as divine, it sees it as something to be eradicated and avoided at all costs. Every advert screams promises of material and sensory happiness while bookshops explode with self-help guides designed to help you kick the sadness habit. Films, food, books and even sex are commodified, packaged and sold to us as means to greater and more intense forms of happiness. Even the miseries of work become vehicles for happiness as we are encouraged to work harder for bigger rewards and grander promotions. You must have a career. You must be successful. You must be happy. And if you can’t be happy by your own means then the multi billion-dollar neuropharmacology industry stands poised to offer you deliverance. You have no choice… you must comply.
The first half of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a meditation on the expectation of happiness and how the insistence of others that you be happy can be a source of true and unrelenting misery. The second half of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is about the Earth being destroyed in a collision with a rogue planet. Beautifully shot and filled with wonderful ideas and moments of real human insight, Melancholia is possibly Lars von Trier’s best film to date, but that does not mean that the film makes sense. In fact, much of the film’s greatness lies in its perverse refusal to abide by the rules of its two very different halves.
The film opens with an overhead shot of an immense white limousine attempting to negotiate its way along an unpaved country lane. The camera lingers as the car slowly edges back and forth before placing us face to face with the occupants of the car: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Initially puzzled at the driver’s incompetence, the couple soon wind up laughing uproariously and trying to get the car up the path themselves. Warm, humane and beautifully observed, these scenes perfectly capture the kind of little moment that goes on to form the kinds of myths and legends invariably surrounding every successful marriage and relationship. Seeing Justine accidentally honking the horn and turning on the windscreen wipers as the limo driver begs her to be careful, it is possible to imagine her telling and retelling this story to friends and grandchildren for decades to come.
The warm humour continues when the couple eventually arrive at the wedding reception on foot two hours late. Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has organised the wedding while Claire’s immensely wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) has picked up the tab. Claire and John are annoyed but Justine is seemingly too happy to notice as she dashes off to say hello to her favourite horse.
The mood of the wedding begins to sour when people start making speeches. Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) makes a spectacularly venomous speech in which she announces her complete lack of faith in the institution of marriage but von Trier brilliantly juxtaposes the mother’s scorn with the eccentric and benign supportiveness of her estranged husband, Justine’s father (John Hurt). Visibly shaken, Justine disappears off to urinate on a golf course. Upon her return, her boss and father-in-law (Stellan Skarsgard) announces that she has been promoted on the understanding that she must come up with a new tagline every single day, including the day of her marriage. In order to ensure that the tagline is delivered, Justine’s boss has hired someone to follow her around and if he does not turn in a tagline everyday, he will get the sack.
The more von Trier shows us of the party, the more it becomes obvious that Justine is struggling to meet all of the expectations that are being placed upon her. However, while her initial desire to flee the wedding seems an entirely rational response to comically unreasonable relatives, her escapes become longer and harder to justify as the evening wears on. By the end of the evening, Justine is virtually prostrate beneath the demand that she be happy. However, Justine is quite obviously suffering from depression and this depression is making her actions more and more erratic. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder whether Justine’s wedding might not have been a bit more successful if only her friends and relatives had taken a step back and allowed her some space. As it is, they keep pushing and pushing until all pretence of happiness shatters in a bunker on John’s 18-hole backyard golf course.
Beautifully observed, wonderfully shot and flawlessly acted, this opening vignette is clearly inspired by Albrecht Durer’s famous sixteenth-century engraving Melencolia I. Aside from replicating both the sombre tone of the engraving and a number of details from it (particularly the magic square-like window and the figure in a long dress resting with her head in her hands), Melancholia explores the idea of depression being a kind of celestial body that looms over the horizon and bathes the landscape in eerie shadow and supernatural misery. This metaphorical conceit is established in the film’s jaw-dropping opening sequence where a planet crashes into the Earth and destroys it utterly. However, having explored the idea of depression being a metaphorical rogue planet that can crash into us and destroy us at any moment, von Trier shifts the focus away from the depressed Justine and onto her psychologically stable sister Claire.
The second part of Melancholia takes place an undefined amount of time after the events of the opening vignette. The action continues to take place in John and Claire’s palatial home but Justine has returned to her apartment and her depression has deepened to the point where she can no longer bathe herself. Indeed, she arrives back at the house in a state of near-collapse having taken a hugely expensive cab ride all the way to her sister’s side. The reason for this expensive reunion is that the Earth is due to pass close to the planet Melancholia and the entire world is hunkering down and waiting for what promises to be either a world-ending collision or a spectacular near-miss.
With all the care and attention of a writer of science fiction, von Trier lays out the physical consequences of a near collision between the Earth and another celestial body: the closer Melancholia comes to Earth, the more the film becomes infused by the ever-present subsonic rumble that pervades the film’s soundtrack. Lighting switches as sunlight reflects off the planet at night while strange electric and magnetic effects force animals to start behaving strangely while human civilisation simply shuts down. One reason why civilisation seems to disappear is that John has banned the increasingly anxious Claire from looking at the Internet on the grounds that doomsayers will say anything to get noticed while real scientists know full well that Melancholia will not collide with the Earth. Of course, having seen the collision in the film’s pre-title sequence, we know that John and his scientists are completely wrong.
Less thematically coherent than the section dealing with Justine, Claire’s section floats between being an examination of how people react when confronted with imminent death and a more metaphorical meditation on the experience of being confronted by the mental illness of a loved one and wondering whether there might not be some genetic component to it. Indeed, when Claire sneaks onto the internet and begins searching for “Melancholia + Death”, it is not clear whether the intent is to explore Claire’s literal fear of the planet or whether she is afraid that she too might well be teetering on the edge of a life-threatening depression.
Von Trier’s refusal to pick a register for the second half of the film and stick to it means that Melancholia lacks a clear and unambiguous meaning. However, despite a marked lack of coherence, Melancholia’s back half does contain some wonderful characterisation and some truly breath-taking moments of cinematic composition:
For example, there are a couple of scenes where Justine and Claire go for a ride and the camera follows them by helicopter. The composition of these shots complete with winding roads, low-lying mist and quietly dignified countryside is achingly gorgeous and both sequences end with Justine’s horse pointedly refusing to cross a bridge. In the second scene, Dunst’s character responds to the horse’s stubbornness by effectively beating the animal to death. It is tempting to see in this moment a symbolic echo of some battle with either suicide (crossing over) or unwelcome and stubbornly persistent thoughts (Justine’s mental illness amounts to flogging a dead horse) but the scenes are so conceptually slippery that they fail to snap into metaphorical focus, resulting only in thematically pregnant but ultimately empty shots of significant artistic beauty.
Equally compelling is the way that Claire’s downward psychological trajectory eventually intersects with that of the depressed Justine. It is possible to read the movements of the two sisters as a poetic meditation on the character and movement of different celestial bodies as the fair-haired Justine assumes a position of ascendance just as the dark-haired Claire dips below the horizon. However, upon further reflection, I take this arc to be an exploration of the idea that the world might one day change to the point where a depressed worldview might actually be a good thing to have. Indeed, Claire is psychologically healthy and so is completely unprepared for the literal end of the world. However, Justine has been coping with depression for some time and so the end of the world is just another depressing thing to be taken on board whilst trying to function on a day-to-day basis. It is telling that the film ends with Justine making all the decisions as von Trier seems to be suggesting that the end of the world might actually be a depressive’s playground.
Films such as Antichrist (2009) and The Idiots (1998) have earned von Trier a reputation for controversy. His fondness for publicity-seeking combined with a gleefully childish sense of humour that is utterly at odds with the po-faced existential persona expected of European art house directors mean that critics are quick to present him as something of a chancer, a technically brilliant director whose ideas seldom cohere into anything concrete or substantial. Indeed, Antichrist is a technically flawless piece of filmmaking but the ideas that von Trier plays with really do not amount to a substantial message or argument. A similar criticism can be levelled at Melancholia but it seems strange to me that a film this intelligent and beautifully made should be ‘marked down’ because of its incoherence. The fact of the matter is that Melancholia contains more ideas than most coherent art house films. In fact, many art house films are only coherent because they are quite content to rehash the same themes and ideas that have featured in art house cinema since the days of L’Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad. Melancholia is not a film that makes sense but it is a film that surprises and delights in a way that less ambitious art house films fail to achieve. Give me the childish but dynamic incoherence of a von Trier over the predictable faux-profundity of a Sophia Coppola any day of the week and twice on Sundays.