The world ends in Melancholia. We know this from the start when a huge planet collides with Earth. Earth comes off worst. But for some of its inhabitants this end may come more as a blessed relief.
It’s a beautiful end too. No crashing bridges and falling Empire States; no tidal waves. Lars Von Trier is unlikely to be interested in the science and dynamics of the end of this world. Perhaps it’s just enough for it to end; gorgeously, sadly; cloaked, sometimes comically, in German Romanticism.
Listen. Our end sounds like this.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst) has just got married. She travels to the reception in a stretch limo which has no hope in hell of getting around the twisty dirt roads that lead to the mansion home of her sister Claire and brother-in-law John (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jack Bauer… sorry, Kiefer Sutherland). She has a go driving, as does her sweetly hapless new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), but they struggle and arrive at the reception hopelessly late.
And I couldn’t help feeling they should have stayed in the car. Forever. Wedged between bushes, constantly going back and forth, one step forward, one step back. This is the nearest we get in the film to a ‘happy marriage’.
But no, they get to the reception, and it’s awful for all involved. Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) is sensationally rude… she really shouldn’t have been invited. Justine’s father (John Hurt) is separated from her mother and spends his time collecting spoons and chatting up any girl available (calling them all Betty, like a lairy, hairy Frank Spencer). Her poor sister Claire has tried to keep on top of all the organising (including organising Justine’s fragile mental state) and daft old rich John can’t believe just how ungrateful Justine is when he’s spent a fortune on the event.
Can money buy happiness? In Camus’ A Happy Death money can be seen to buy time… time free from work… time to be happy. These folk have all the money, but time is not on their side. Nevertheless, there may be room for at least one happy death in this film.
It’s not John’s though. Watching John is like watching Jack Bauer go through his worst 24 hours yet, as he wanders his mansion, muttering “unbelievable” at every little inconvenience. As the guests wait for the cake to be cut Jack/John faces the biggest insult yet to his largesse when mother and daughter both go missing; “those bitches have locked themselves in their bathrooms and now they’re taking a bath”.
Bring on the crashing planet.
The film is split into two major chapters; first the wedding sequence, titled “Justine”, then part two, “Claire”, which takes place some time after the disastrous wedding (we never find out what happened to the hapless husband. He’s gone. He was sweet and really tried hard to deal with Justine’s crippling depression. I hope he survives the planetary collision… he doesn’t).
No one does. Claire panics, John assures them the planet won’t hit, Justine just waits and says things like; “life is only on Earth. And not for long”.
And this is how sad the film is. It’s gloriously sad, and so enjoyable for it. Others have compared it to that other cosmic film of 2011, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Sleep… sorry, Life. I see Melancholia almost as an antidote to the single-minded indulgence and incoherence of Malick’s undoubteldy beautiful snorefest.
I don’t know what Malick was showing me. I didn’t understand it.
I’m not sure I know what Von Trier is showing me. But it’s more beautiful, moving, depressing, funny… it’s achingly beautiful to watch.
It’s the Sisters Grim.