By: David Salazar
Lars Von Trier's Melancholia begins with an extended 10 minute montage set to the glorious Prelude from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde (the only non-diegetic music in the entire film that reoccurs time and time again)." This piece of music is both legendary and notorious for its profound impact on the direction of the music world in the middle of the 19th century. It is the music of longing, of sadness, of depression, and yes, of melancholy. More importantly, this music is famous for its "Tristan" Chord, a tonal conglomeration that remains suspended with no real direction or resolution. It is the ultimate expression of the lost soul searching for healing where there is none.
Which brings us to Von Trier's film. The entire opening sequence presents us with images of suspension. Particularly striking to me was a wide profile of Kirsten Dunst's Justine in a wedding dress, the tail of the dress being pulled into the dirt and her intended forward movement made impossible. Another striking image is Charlotte Gainsbourg's Claire holding her child, attempting to run through a field but making no progress. This opening collage of suspended, seemingly eternal moments sets the mood for Von Trier's analysis on the unhappiness of humanity and how it ultimate leads to the world's downfall.
The film is operatic in scope and even structure. It opens with the aforementioned prelude and is then divided into two acts, one emphasizing Justine and the latter emphasizing Claire. The first act takes place mainly in the public sphere, while the latter emphasizes the personal, the intimate. The reoccurence of Tristan Prelude throughout the film serves as a leitmotif to remind the audience of the helplessness and search for wholeness of its characters. The use of the music is sparring, but there is a great deal of precision with regards to the timing of the editing in combination with the music's distinct phrases. For example, the prelude's 7th phrase has the orchestra erupt in one grand plea of sound. During the opening montage, the first few shots portray the two main women suspended in time. When this explosion of sound from the prelude occurs, Von Trier takes us to space to see the two planets preparing to converge: the enormity of the conflict is presented to us for the first time accompanied by the grandiosity of the musical lament emphasizing the lament not just of two people, but the entire world. This same explosive phrase is reused to portray the audience's discovery of a character naked by the river and gazing up at the destructive planet. Both times that the prelude was employed in this manner were truly incredible.
As the film begins, Justine has just gotten married and is on her way to the party at her sister Claire's mansion. Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are late to their wedding party because their limo got stuck in the road and they were forced to walk all the way to the party. Claire and her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) are unhappy with the late arrival. Once they arrive at the party everything seems to be going decently until Justine's mother Gaby (a humorous yet somewhat vicious Charlotte Rampling) presents a negative attitude about the wedding. From here everything goes south and Justine who was initially giddy becomes increasingly detached from the proceedings. Her attitude irritates a great majority of the guests, leading to mass pandemonium.
The second half of the film emphasizes Claire's fear of a planet "Melancholia" coming into the contact with the world and potentially destroy her entire family and existence. Her husband John, an expert on astronomy assures her that there will be no problem, but it does not seem to alleviate Claire's concerns.
The film is slowly paced, much like its opening montage, but maintains a gritty style thanks in part to its dependence on natural lighting that underexposes a great deal of the indoor visuals (essentially partial Dogma film making). However, this slow pace does not only enhance the dark and hopeless feel of the film, but enables the viewer the opportunity to digest the wealth of ideas that Von Trier throws his/her way.
Just because the characters are symbols does not mean the actors have nothing to do here. The performances are strong throughout, led by a breakout performance (in my opinion) by Kirsten Dunst, who goes from cheerful to moribund throughout the film. And yet, in her final moments she regains control and salvages some dignity for her character. There are moments where there is a dark, almost haunting edge to her Justine that makes one shudder. Gainsbourg's Claire juxtaposes Dunst's Justine in their arcs as she goes in the complete opposite direction: In control during the early stages to being overwhelmed by her fear.
Much has been said about Von Trier's treatment of women in his films and the negative connotations associated with them (see "Antichrist"). However, this film is more of a condemnation of humanity as a whole. He cuts women a bit more slack here (though as usual they continue to suffer endlessly), but men are portrayed as irresponsible and unwilling to stand up and fight. The film's ending (which many will likely guess), emphasizes a pessimistic existentialism in which humans cause their own destruction through their lack of emotional control and the very fickleness and pointlessness of life in general. The dark subject matter may be too difficult for some, but the simultaneously grand and intimate film making, while not necessarily inspiring, leaves the viewer in a combined state of discomfort and ecstasy.