Melancholia: One Planet is Better than Two

Melancholia: 8/10

Brandon Haffner

Melancholia is possibly the most flawed great film I’ve seen.  The opening shots are mesmerizing.  The first half of the film is intimate, fully immersive, dark, familiar but alien all at once.  The musical score is intense and appropriately sparse.  Inside my head, I was leaping out of my seat and declaring Melancholia the greatest film I’d seen since “No Country for Old Men.”

But alas, there is always a second half.

Let’s start with what Lars von Trier, controversial director of “Dogville,” “The Five Obstructions,” and “Antichrist” did exceedingly well.

Our star is Kirsten Dunst, who plays the girl “Justine” with a fierceness we’ve never seen from the actress before.  The film would have you believe that her character’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is of equal importance; the first half of the film is subtitled “Justine,” and the second half subtitled “Claire.”  But make no mistake— this is Justine’s movie, 100%.

The first half is composed of one long night; Justine’s wedding night.  We’re introduced to many characters.  John Hurt plays the kind but perhaps emotionally injured father, Charlotte Rampling plays the terrifying mother, Alexander Skarsgard is Justine’s unfortunate husband, and Keifer Sutherland plays the incredibly wealthy step-brother (husband to Claire) who hosts the gathering in his enormous estate.  Lars von Trier shows off his ability to render the humor and complex pains of a dysfunctional family forced to spend an evening together.

It’s hard to describe why the first half is so successful.  We spend a good deal of of the wedding party with Justine alone.  We learn she’s ill, and I don’t mean the coughing kind.  She’s mastered how to behave around others, but we can tell on the inside that something isn’t right, and that she’s not used to keeping up the act for such long periods of time.  She grows weary of smiling.  The night pushes on and her sociability act begins to unravel.  She makes biting comments.  She tries to leave the party several times to compose herself for her return, but it doesn’t work.

Justine is incredibly smart, which makes her dark wit and her mental instability increasingly nauseating yet also captivating for us.  We want her to succeed and make it through the night.  We want her kind, helpful husband to be rewarded for his patience and misguided care.  We want her weary father to feel proud on his daughter’s wedding day.  It’s not a pleasant thing to watch, but the first half of “Melancholia” is as immersive and brilliant as any piece of filmmaking I’ve seen in years.  Kirsten Dunst deserves a nomination for this role, but I’m not sure she’ll get it; the critics are largely ignoring this film as a serious Oscar contender, and I’m about to tell you why.

The screen fades to black after the insane night party, then the name “CLAIRE” pops up on the screen.  Claire, to this point, has shown herself to be a stern but loving sister, one who clearly knows how to get through to Justine most of the time but is too exhausted and confused by her sister to do anything about it.  She has her own life, after all, with her rich husband John (Sutherland) and her young boy, Leo (played well by Cameron Spurr).

Where do I begin.  Can you tell I’m procrastinating?  Even now I want this movie to be better than it was.

The world (spoler!) ends.  Yes, I said it.  The second half of the movie, instead of focusing on those complex and tantalizing relationships, or instead of treating us to a true 2-act masterpiece in which the first half complicates, then the second half pursues and resolves the tension, we get the classic bail-out: the world explodes (spoiler!)— yes, literally explodes, into our faces at the end of the film, followed by blackness and silence.  My theater reacted with tepid applause (how else do you react to an ending like that?)  I guess that’s a reliable way to finish a movie you don’t know how to finish.

To be fair, there are a couple of mentions of potential impending doom during the party.  And despite my cynicism, I don’t believe Lars actually bailed on his plot; I believe he wanted to create an apocalyptic science fiction resolution to a specific, human dilemma.  But he fails in making us feel that way because of huge logistical holes in the plot.  See below.

A planet is nearing Earth and threatens to collide.  We don’t get any real details on this matter.  Claire inexplicably relies entirely on John— who is shady and indirect, and forbids use of the internet to learn more, also inexplicably— for information on the impending planet.

Further, Claire buys a large number of pills just in case they need to kill themselves.  What?  Why? I ask.  Never mind the missing justification for the purchase— John actually does kill himself when he realizes he was wrong about the planets not colliding (oops)— what about Leo, the child who now must face certain death without his father?

And why does the power go out in the house?  Why do the gas-powered cars stop starting?  Why does the electric golf cart work, then fail to work?  John tells Claire something like, “they said this would happen.  The power will be back on in a few days, after the planet passes.”  Any chance we could get some science on this?  Why aren’t we privy to this before it happens?  Why is John manipulating the strings, jerking us around?  Where’s Claire’s resourcefulness in a time of crisis?  If she can’t find out for herself what’s going on despite her suspicions, if she can’t ride a horse down to the village and ask around, if she can’t sneak onto the internet or the news channel, if she’s too trusting and blind that she can’t ACT, then why are we following the plot from her perspective in the first place?

Which brings me to my next point.  What we lose when we switch to Claire’s point of view isn’t just our incredibly interesting, driving, strong character, Justine, but we also lose a correlating intimate involvement in our primary character’s mind.  With Justine, we’re at one with her, we know her so well we can almost sense what she’s going to do next, even as unpredictable and crazy as she is.  But with Claire, we feel much more distant from her mind and her decisions.  I don’t know why this extra distance necessary, apart from perhaps that if we were deep in Claire’s mind we’d be bored out of our skulls.

At first I thought, maybe Justine’s illness has progressed, maybe a story told from her perspective would be incomprehensible.  But to the contrary, Justine (who does arrive at the estate in the later part of the film again), seems more lucid than ever after an initial bout of sleepiness.  She is the reason Leo can face the impending planet with a calm smile on her face, while his mother Claire whines like an animal.

Couldn’t we have found a way to end the film with Justine? Certainly she was more than capable to carry us home.  Perhaps paradoxically, we identify with the heavily depressed Justine more than with the fairly “normal” Claire. Justine feels human, and Claire often feels empty, almost puppet-like. So I was unsurprised to learn that Lars von Trier himself suffers from depression. According to the Danish Film Institute, he came upon the idea for this film after being diagnosed. Apparently, “A therapist told [von Trier] a theory that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while ‘ordinary, happy’ people are more apt to panic. Melancholics are ready for it. They already know everything is going to hell” (See the full interview with Film # Magazine here).

Thus, I suppose, the inspiration for “Melancholia.”  Maybe he wanted to juxtapose medically “normal” and a medically “abnormal” personalities in a time of crisis, but how can anyone say he succeeds?  Roger Ebert apparently believes von Trier is trying to “exchange” personalities across the halfway mark— in essence, the insanity is transferred from Justine to Claire as the impending planet comes closer, so we viewers follow the insanity, not character.  But is this true?  Is Claire’s inability to make autonomous discoveries, and a consequential absence of responsibility to her son, and to herself and her sick sister, insanity?

The answer I don’t know.  All I know is how I felt when I watched the film, and I felt less interested when we moved to Claire’s perspective.   Even apart from the shift, I don’t understand why we couldn’t get more grounded validation of the science behind our fabulous apocalypse, so that we could trust the obstacles in the plot as genuine.   It’s a waste of a perfect hour of filmmaking.  Lars von Trier should have taken a step back, breathed in, and spent another year hacking away at that second act.  If he had, we might have finally had our 2011 Best Picture frontrunner.

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