Lars von Trier has a bent for sacrificing his protagonists (mostly women), and for him, more is not less. In his Breaking the Waves (1996), the Christ-like Bess (Emily Watson) inaugurates the series of self-sacrifices: goodness is her sin, and it leads her to discard her life to prostitution rather than save the life of her husband, like Dancer in the Dark‘s (2000) Selm (Björk) who sacrifices herself for her son. The next stage would be Dogville (2003), whose Grace (Nicole Kidman) is in many respects their successor, offers herself up to an entire village, though by the story’s end she pulls herself together like some postmodern Cinderella to take revenge – with an automatic weapon – on the community that has taken her in and exploited her. Then comes Antichrist (2009), where the woman is no longer Christ-like, or indeed even good, but instead brings to life human nature’s most destructive tendencies, offering up her son for the sake of her own orgasms.
Now Mr von Trier has become such a gourmand of sacrifice that he can only be satisfied by the immolation of the entire world. In Melancholia (2011), he makes no bones about his subject: as the film opens, a small planet called Melancholia is hurtling toward Earth. Whether the impact will come is uncertain. While it is unusual of Trier to choose a theme from science fiction to train our eyes on the soul, the end result remains a romantic and shocking meditation that leaves the viewer stumbling out of the theatre. The movements of the spirit parallel astronomical events throughout the arc of the story. The drama played out by the Earth and the approaching planet shows us the relationship of humans to the world at large.
During the eight minutes of the prologue, time seems to stand still, or at least slow to an absolute adagio. From the outset the viewer experiences firsthand the ruthlessly slow wait for the approaching heavenly body. Here, Trier’s references are not difficult to interpret: Kirsten Dunst, in her wedding dress, floats in the water like an Ophelia, and we see set afire Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, a painting familiar from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). The play on Solaris prepares us to recognize that the soul and planet Earth are stand-ins for each other, and the colours of the soul change as shapes on the horizon of the universe.
Two sisters, Justine (Kristen Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are polar opposites: Justine, the younger one, is sensitive and prone to depression, while her older sister Claire is rational, protecting of her sister, nurturing and tolerant. The film begins as a catastrophic family wedding melodrama in the most extreme Danish vein. In contrast to Antichrist, there is room in this movie for humour: more than once we laugh at scenes that hold a mirror up to intramural family animosities, while the whole manages to remain deeply affecting. It does not take long for us to feel how suffocating is the familial milieu in which Justine remains hopelessly the outsider.
After the wedding reception, the film turns to the approach of the planet from space. But even this impending threat fails to bring the sisters into any kind of harmony. While Justine roasts (quite literally) in the shadow of death – the glow of Melancholy – her sister is numbed motionless in expectation of the planet’s impact. Claire, the all-controlling one, now finds herself unable to deal with a reality that has outgrown all human dimensions. There is no place in her world for an instant end to everything, for her son never seeing adulthood, and all futures preempted. But for Justine “the Earth is a cruel place that is nothing to mourn for.”
Her remark comes as no surprise. The lens of depression deprives its wearer of seeing the world as a hopeful place. Cognitive psychology explains depression as threefold in cause: it comes from a more realistic view of the world, of ourselves, and of the future, than that of the average person. It is the absence of illusion, in other words. We may even call this triad “the cognitive illusions” that protect the ego from reality. Justine’s vision, though, is unobstructed by any such illusions; she is unprotected from reality – but this means she does not fear death either, as her depression has long led her to accept “the bloody mathematics of our condition,” as Albert Camus puts it in his Myth of Sisyphus.
The silent horror of the banquet scenes serves to expose Justine’s agony in this all-too-familiar hell. This impermeable and monolithically dark experience of melancholy sheds its own pure, raw light on things, obliterating the distinction between life and death. No tears here for the death of a planet. The film’s slow pace, its recurring leitmotif-like sentences and images in place of a narrative, offer the viewer a condition rather than a story. Here, Wagner’s music, with its characteristic stasis, its unwillingness to develop freely, serves Trier as an appropriate backdrop. There is no other way to put it: this film is the phenomenon of melancholy itself. Call it existentialist: we are ruthlessly thrown into the universe with no chance of escape. Even the Earth itself is vulnerable.
The parallel between the Earth and humankind gradually disintegrates, making it clear to us how unprotected both are, on so many levels. Just as the rational, therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) of Antichrist is helpless to rescue his wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, from her personal disintegration, so in Melancholia, where the same actress this time plays the rationalistic nurse, who finds herself powerless to sustain her sister. Something similar is happening to our planet as well: the Earth, moment by moment, falls ever deeper under the shadow of the mercilessly approaching planet, friendly as it might appear, earth-like when seen through the telescope, enveloping our planet nightly in a magical blue light.
But this film manages to avoid the savagery of Antichrist, and the extremes typical of Trier’s films more generally. In fact, despite its subject, this is not a depressing film. It offers the familiar Trier-esque scenario of protagonists endowed with an understanding deriving from their weaknesses, illness, or obsessions, an understanding that always becomes a powerful force at the moment of crisis, their own lives be damned. We might think of the sacrifices made in Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, or Grace’s transformation when she borrows a machine gun in Dogville. Here again the director chooses a female protagonist who is strong by virtue of her weakness, but who here moves no mountains, and makes no sacrifice of herself or others. Her power lies merely in her understanding the merciless, impartial logic of the heavenless sky. She leads her loved ones, Charon-like, through the cataclysm.
Maybe his bout with Antichrist so exhausted Trier that he had no choice but to hibernate under the silent bell jar of Melancholy, which only an approaching planet can shatter. On the other hand, perhaps the purgatory of Antichrist has taken on such dimensions in Melancholy that it consumes the entire world in a kind of purgative fire. The Apocalypse here is not the ultimate one, but merely a state of normalcy. More precisely, the interesting thing is that the depressive Justine, who has always lived in a liminal state produced by melancholy, ultimately finds her way in the prelude to the end of the world that Melancholia brings. The scene playing out around her is already overshadowed by what she is long accustomed to, so for her there is no struggle. But for Claire, the threshold is at hand: the true force of the Apocalypse stares her down, letting her see “face to face.” Here it is revealed that Claire is the defenseless one who has always been shielded from reality by mere illusions. Now these illusions – and with them reality itself – are coming apart.
Translated by J. Tucker