Lars von Trier’s Melancholia might be a uniquely bleak film. Even for a director who is well known for offering dark and disturbing pictures of humanity, Melancholia expresses a special sort of hopelessness. The film begins with a series of strange, surreal tableaux shot in extreme slow motion. The musical accompaniment is the Tristan und Isolde Prelude. The beauty of the scenes, shot in crisp focus and with rich colors, is immediately apparent and compelling. But the meaning of what we are witnessing is less clear; it seems to somehow prefigure the ensuing drama with a heightened touch of painterly detail.
The story itself concerns the discovery of a new planet, Melancholia, which is found to be passing through our solar system. The discovery coincides with a wedding party given for an unsure bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst). As the dysfunctional celebration plays out it becomes apparent that Justine has significant personal issues, and we sense that she is being pushed into the role of bride. Due to her aberrant and confused behavior, her husband leaves her on her wedding night. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), then attempts to look after Justine against the wishes of Claire’s husband, John, played with some conviction by Kiefer Sutherland. As the family drama unfolds, Melancholia looms larger on the horizon and, with a horrible sense of inevitability, it seems less and less likely that it will avoid colliding with Earth.
The first section of the film which centers on the wedding party recalls Thomas Vinterberg’s film, Festen. The comparison is apt, as Festen was the first film made under the conditions of Dogme 95. Dogme 95 was an avant-garde movement started in 1995 by Vinterberg and von Trier to encourage a type of film-making that would focus on story and character, rather than special effects and technical innovation. It was thoroughly expressive of certain trends in European film-making, and was radically opposed to the increasingly formulaic fare offered by Hollywood. The Dogme 95 manifesto consisted of the following rules:
- Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
- The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
- The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.
The second film made under this ‘vow of chastity’ was von Trier’s The Idiots. In this film a group of young people decide to explore their inner idiot by pretending to be mentally retarded in public. By turns disturbing, sexually explicit, and blackly funny, The Idiots confirmed von Trier’s reputation as the enfant terrible of European film-making. But the most interesting thing about Dogme 95 was that it provided a practical manifesto and program for film-making that was economically, aesthetically. and intellectually opposed to the Hollywood methodology.
Despite the presence of American heavyweights Dunst and Sutherland, Melancholia is financed with European money, and it shows. Although von Trier has now grown out of the austerity of the Dogme 95 school, its influence is still apparent in the use of handheld cameras and the avoidance of slick editing. Even the special effects which show the approach of Melancholia (and which sometimes echo the aesthetics of Kubrick’s 2001) are subjugated to the demands of the narrative, never becoming an intrusive presence. Von Trier’s interest in characterization means that Melancholia is paced to a very different rhythm than any other mainstream film. It is notable that despite being able to attract actors of the stature of Dunst, Nicole Kidman (Dogville), and Björk (Dancer in the Dark), von Trier has persisted with his unique vision and has resisted the temptation to conform to the demands of multiplex inanity. Indeed, the great and the good of American film-making must now conform to his idiosyncratic demands and not the other way round. For this, if nothing else, he should be admired.
If there is a weak point in Melancholia it is perhaps the performance of Dunst. I was not convinced that she was capable of commensurately conveying the extremity of the mental distress her character was suffering from. It is undoubtedly unfair to compare her performance to that of Björk in Dancer in the Dark or to Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves; both of those actresses appeared to be dangerously immersed in the worlds of their characters. It is not especially problematic that Dunst’s performance is not quite so extreme, but the world created in Melancholia requires a great deal of weight to be carried on Dunst’s characterization of Justine. Without a sufficiently convincing performance in this role, the logic of Melancholia is lacking an objective correlative, so to speak.
And this is due to the symbolic power of the planet Melancholia. Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth and is set to destroy all life. It is also an externalized symbol of the mental distress suffered by Justine. For the person suffering from depression there really is no hope, no future. Justine is not able to live a married life, despite a sympathetic husband. Unlike her sister, she has no children and nothing to live for. She cannot function as an autonomous human being. And yet, at the end of the film, she is proved to be right. Her mentally disturbed nihilism is vindicated. Only those who have no hope can cope with the end of the world. This is why Melancholia is a uniquely grim film.
It is normal for a Lars von Trier film to focus on the distress of a mentally disturbed woman. Melancholia may fail to achieve the same degree of intense, disturbing empathy for such a character as some of his other films but it is, nonetheless, a deeply poetic and visually arresting work of art.