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Apocalypse – When self-destructive personalities come into their own



Melancholia – Lars Von Trier

Bookend Malik’s Tree of Life with Melancholia and you’ve got the world covered: from beginning to end. Malik’s conception makes more sense, for having brilliantly conjured a representation of the creation of the world, then his narrative has somewhere to go. Von Trier’s film if not Maliks’ graphic equal, is none the less by turns visually entrancing and a starkly powerful presentiment of impending cataclysm. Like life itself, Melancholia has only one necessary, inescapable outcome – death. Here Malik and Von Trier are at opposite ends of the metaphysical spectrum: the one intimating the solace of an after-life; the other a vision of the implacable, banal truth of oblivion.

One last contrast between these two eminent directors: I have argued that Malik does not ‘do’ strong women: by contrast women, with all their contradictions and emotional complexity and sexual ambiguity are Von Trier’s preoccupation and obsession. The sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their troubled relationship are the emotional core of Melancholia. Most of the men characters are weak, venal, inept or servile. Indeed the only other striking character is the girls’ misandryst mother (a superbly acidic Charlotte Rampling). This gender imbalance, for me, is a fundamental weakness in both directors’ exploration of human relationships.

Lars Von Trier definitely goes for striking openings: the beginning of The Antichrist is one of the best I’ve ever seen. If the quality there was narrative economy; in Melancholia it is visual power. After setting up the dramatic context of the film, the imminent collision between the planet Melancholia and Earth; Von Trier offers us a montage of evocative, if perplexing, super-real images in super-slow motion, in eerie moon- and ‘Melancholia-light’, of Kirsten Dunst in a wedding dress; and Charlotte Gainsbourg, child in arms, struggling to escape as the ground simply sinks away beneath her feet. Like a beautiful dream that suddenly darkens to nightmare these images absorb and draw us in to a sense of intensity that promises much – but sadly the film fails to deliver, however much ominously overwhelming Wagnerian music (Tristan and Isolde) is larded on to the soundtrack.

Philosophically we must seek the effect of the concept of death in its impact upon our lives and how we live them.‘Death is not an event in life’ (Wittgenstein). It is here at its narrative heart that Melancholia so disappoints.

The action of the film takes place on Justine’s wedding day. Apparently at Claire’s request her sister and wealthy husband (Kiefer Sutherland) have put on a sumptuous, meticulously organised reception in their grand home, complete with its own golf course. Despite appearing to be at first, a much-in-love bride with a keen sense of fun, embarking on the happiest day of her life, it becomes increasingly clear that Justine’s emotional stability is, and has always been, highly precarious. With an air of resignation born of much practice, Claire does her best to keep the minutely organised ‘perfect’ celebration on the road; thwarted at every turn by Justine’s self-destructive behaviour. It is hard to find any sense of empathy with any of the almost universally dysfunctional group of people at the reception: certainly not Justine. Even the mediating, giving Claire remains distant and oddly remote from us.

This group of people remain totally isolated throughout. The supposed ‘uncertainty’ of whether Melancholia will strike or pass by the Earth, apart from its scientific absurdity, just hovers vaguely in the background unchecked by news in any form from the real world. I suppose there is a certain ironic frisson to be derived from the thought that when the end of the world is imminent the self-destructive personality finally comes into its own. But sadly there really is no one here that we feel anything for, or care about. Von Trier seems to think the same, given the way he apparently arbitrarily dispenses with characters.

There is something irreducibly grandiose about setting a film in the context of the end of the world; or I suppose more correctly, the end of planet Earth. How do you dramatise the end of the world? The stock truism of disaster movies is that we need to identify with the impossible event through the experience of individual characters we can feel for and identify with.

There is something perverse about choosing to make a film set against the end of life on earth and not having a single interesting, moving, affecting thing to say about the human response to it. Von Trier’s little jibes and digs about bourgeois personal sentiment and social convention; and our shallow advertising-led culture are just too trivial for his chosen theme.

Critical reception for Melancholia has been mixed, though perhaps not quite the Marmite of Von Trier’s previous offerings. The strangest common view is the notion that Melancholia is somehow more ‘mature’ than earlier films. This seems to be based on nothing more than the idea that portraying the worst, most passive aspects of human nature with a kind of sentimental relish is ‘adult’ because it is laced with admittedly superb, imaginative, visual expression massaged by powerfully affecting romantic music.

For me in contrast, The Antichrist, with all its polemical controversy; was a visceral exploration of the blood and guts, sinewed possibilities of human love and hatred, pain and loss. In that film real people loved and lusted; hated and grieved. There was a consequence to actions and behaviour; a price to pay. That’s the grown-up stuff of maturity. In contrast Melancholia exudes a kind of indulgent, sentimental nihilism that those of us with a touch of melancholy in our natures, thankfully, usually grow out of.

Worth seeing for the imagery and visual power and style: but a big disappointment none-the-less. Von Trier is much better at forensics than Philosophy.

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