The end of the world is a concept that has been completely overused by Holywood for years now. We’ve seen landmarks of all shapes and sizes demolished by Roland Emmerich, we’ve seen giant monsters, aliens, zombies, and preachy Al Gore messages end the lives of a good portion of the human race, we’ve seen idiotic ways of preventing the end of the world such as nuking the asteroid before it hits earth or having the President pilot a fighter jet to kill aliens…
Simply put, we’ve seen the end of the world so many times, but when you think about it, has there ever been a movie that truly looks at an intimate portrayal of what would really happen when the impending apocalypse loomed ever closer? Has there ever been an apocalyptic film that didn’t star a cutthroat hero like Will Smith or Bruce Willis, but instead depicted everyday people reacting to such a situation? Have we ever seen an accurate portrayal of what a regular person would do when faced with the inevitability that everything that they know and love will be wiped out in an instant and there’s nothing they can do about it?
In reality, the end of the world would be a bleak, depressing affair with zero hope to be found. There would probably be nothing an average joe could do to stop it, or even survive it. The end of the world would mean the end of all of humanity as we all know it. And the big question is: Will anyone miss it when it’s gone? Will anyone miss us when we’re gone?
Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia, is perhaps the closest a film has ever gotten to succeeding on such an apocalyptic vision. It begins with Justine (Kirsten Dunst) having an expensive wedding with her new hubby (Alexander Skarsgard) in a lavish mansion in the middle of the woods. Her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) have planned the expensive wedding for her and wish her the best, but it becomes increasingly clear to the audience that nothing about this marriage is going to work out.
After a marriage that, believe it or not, lasts shorter than Kim Kardashian’s betrothment with Kris Humphries (I’m getting topical, guys!), Justine battles through severe amounts of depression and decides to temporarily move in with her sister in the mansion. What should be a therapeutic vacation becomes an unsettling descent into despair when a giant planet five times the size of earth named Melancholia is seen heading for a collision course for earth. It’s the perfect apocalypse: There’s absolutely nothing anybody can do to stop the planet, and all our characters can do is sit and watch as the planet grows bigger and bigger in the sky.
The genius behind Melancholia‘s bleakness is in how the film opens. The first seven and a half minutes are an almost disconnected prelude featuring a collage of images of destruction and despair in the most grandiose slo-mo you’ve ever seen. It’s probably one of the most gorgeous openings I have ever experienced in a film. A perfect marriage of stunning imagery, meticulous detail, excellent shot composition, and beautifully fitting classical music. But it also works on a narrative level as well. By showing the end of the world first, there’s no suspense on whether everyone will live or die. Instead, we have a fantastic sense of impending doom. It’s a brilliant use of dramatic irony: The audience knows much more than the characters, and we know that nothing is going to end well for any of them. The opening seven and a half minutes alone are worth the price of admission.
Directly after that, the film shifts gears to what is titled “Part 1: Justine”, which documents Justine’s wedding night. And this is where the film’s flaws drop in. If you saw Part 1 of the film without seeing the opening prologue, and you weren’t told what the concept of the film was, you’d honestly think it had nothing to do with the sci-fi aspects at all. I get what von Trier is trying to do here: Ground the film in reality, show us the calm before the storm, and draw parallels between the end of Justine’s happiness and relationship with the end of the world as we know it. But what makes this prolonged wedding scene not work is that it drags on for too long.
At first, we can kind of sympathize with Justine. She clearly didn’t want to marry this man but did so anyway to make a better person out of herself, and she’s now faced with the prospect of a life of unhappiness with a man she never really loved to begin with. However, this sequence goes on 25-30 minutes too long. At that point, Justine becomes an unlikable shrew of a woman who isn’t given enough reasons to be depressed at such a lavish party with a man who clearly cares about her other than “because she’s kind of crazy”. There are hints of her being bipolar, but it’s never extensively explained, and still doesn’t excuse how she acts within Part 1. It would’ve been much better executed if Lars von Trier decided to cut this sequence down by 10-15 minutes or so. As it stands, it’s something to press the fast-forward button on when you get the DVD.
Thankfully, things pick back up in Part 2 of the film which is titled “Claire”, and focuses more on Charlotte Gainsbourg. Now, I’m probably in the minority when I say this, but it’s well worth mentioning: Everyone has been praising Kirsten Dunst’s performance in the film, but in my personal opinion, Charlotte Gainsbourg brings a much stronger presence, character, and overall performance than Dunst. Not to discredit Ms. Dunst, who gives us a very raw and brave performance, but Charlotte Gainsbourg is given a more nuanced character to work with.
In general, Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of the most underrated actresses of our generation. I’ve only seen her in three films (The Science of Sleep, Antichrist, and this) but in all three, she was absolutely phenomenal. She has a natural beauty to her that feels genuine, can evoke strength and independence alongside fragility and fear. Her work here is phenomenally well done and I hope she also gets the same recognition that Dunst has also been getting .
The fact that Part 2 focuses more on Claire isn’t the only reason that the last two acts work so well. It’s also because it’s the moment when Lars von Trier introduces the sci-fi aspects and the threat of Melancholia. Seeing ordinary people deal with an apocalyptic event in this fashion is something very refreshing in the movie landscape. They react naturally, like real human beings would act in the threat of such a situation. The five stages of grief apply: Denial that it’s actually happening, anger when they realize the inevitable, bargaining for a way out, depression when they realize that there is no way, and finally, the acceptance that this is the end of all things.
Whenever I see films like Independence Day, inoffensively fun as they are, there is never a true sense of loss when you realize that everything that you know and love is coming to an end. Melancholia is the first film to truly make you feel sadness for the death of the world. Like you are watching the end of something beautiful, and you realize that you’ll never see it again. It is this sadness that elevates Melancholia from other films that are just depressing for the sake of being depressing.
Lars von Trier, a man who is normally known for shocking his audience, has created his most tasteful, beautiful, and–in it’s own weird way–uplifting film of his entire career. Despite the true sadness on display, what makes it even sadder is that there are moments of sheer beauty and real emotion throughout the picture. It’s a hefty balancing act of beauty and sadness that makes the film work, even when it is punishingly depressing to view. I’m glad that Lars von Trier didn’t indulge himself in pretentious symbolism and shock-value this time like he did in Antichrist. If anything, I’d like to see him make more films like this.
Final Verdict: It can be a punishing experience to view. It’s unpleasant in every sense of the world, but at the same time it’s also one of the most mesmerizing films of the year. While I have my gripes with the first act of the film, seeing the gorgeous prologue and the emotionally heavy final two acts more than make up for it. Combined with fantastic performances from Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland, plus the best and most assured direction that Lars von Trier has ever brought with him, and Melancholia is an unforgettable experience. Even in spite of its overwhelming sadness, there’s no denying that it’s a hard film to shake off after viewing it.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to nuke Melancholia before it hits us. If I can’t save us, and Bruce Willis can’t save us, then no one can. Bye!