The blue planet Melancholia has been (to earthly eyes) hiding behind the sun, is repressed, suppressed, the result being, for Justine on her wedding day and night, self-doubt and debilitating anxiety; but, possibly on a collision course with Earth, Melancholia may assert itself, testing humanity’s responses, whether to one another, their presumed certainties and uncertainties, or imminent death. The illimitable mystery that Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier achieves in what may be his masterpiece, Melancholia, derives from the indefinable relationship in it between humanity and cosmos—which is a projection of the other, or is each projecting the other?—and among humanity.
Even on her wedding day, at the wedding party, her boss, the owner of the advertising firm for which she works, tries to squeeze work out of Justine, coupling this attempt with the announcement of his promotion of her—all of this an encapsulation of the monstrous egotism of capitalism. Can such a man have imagined the cosmos? Meanwhile, Justine’s long-divorced parents, an embittered mother and an oblivious, footloose father, may be casting the die on their daughter’s marriage. Before the sun comes up, Justine will have her “wedding night” with someone other than her spouse, tell off her boss and chuck the job, lose her marriage before it has begun when her bridegroom walks out on her, and be told by Claire, her sister, whose astronomically inclined spouse, John, has footed the bill (as he reminds his sister-in-law) for wedding, dinner and bash, “Sometimes I hate you so much.” Trier, we’ve always known, takes a dim view of human nature, in part for the gods himans think they are.
Hysterically undone, in the second part of the two-part film (“Justine,” “Claire”), Justine is living at her sister’s mansion, the scene of the “failed feast,” her wedding celebration. Claire holds Justine together until she, terrified of Melancholia’s possibly imminent collision with Earth, herself becomes unglued. Now Justine, seeing no great tragedy in Earth’s end, given its “evil” nature, is the calm one (call it resignation), prompting Claire to tell her again, “Sometimes I hate you so much.” Meanwhile, know-it-all John, who, believing science and scientists, has assured everyone there will be no such collision, cannot face the alternative, and it is left to Justine to draw his and Claire’s young son, poignantly, into fear-subsiding magical fantasy as Melancholia does indeed rearrange its own orbit—or is this God’s handiwork?—and approach Earth in its final assault: one of the most fiercely, ironically beautiful visions conjured by cinema.
Indeed, this is a visually entrancing film. (Helping Trier to achieve the visual form that he is after is the gracious, shimmering color cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro.) A prologue centered on the image of Justine, in breathtakingly lovely extreme slow motion (projecting transience are descending sparse leaves—the perfect use of special effects), both telescopes the arc of the entire film and introduces the film’s recurrent musical theme from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The relationship between love and death is at the core of Trier’s film; what love is possible under the pressure of melancholy and mortal awareness? The transience of love mimics the transience of life; Trier’s virtuoso alternation between stable camera and shaking camera also contributes to the film’s delicate atmosphere of fragility. Every element of this film is headed towards the image of Justine’s protection of sister and nephew under the fragile wigwam structure of branches and twigs: the “magic” of earthly love.
Beauteous Kirsten Dunst (best actress, Cannes, National Society of Film Critics) is phenomenal as Justine, whether quiveringly sensitive or concentrated and taut. Charlotte Gainsbourg is excellent as Claire. Charlotte Rampling, 45 years past Georgy Girl and playing nasty again as the mom, stirs up nostalgic memories; but I prefer the humane characters this marvelous actress played in between.
Best Film, National Society of Film Critics.
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