Searching for answers, waiting for miracles – these seem to be the themes that make up many of the best films so far to play here at the Cannes Film Festival and Melancholia is certainly one of the best of those. You still won‚Äôt find any answers to life‚Äôs biggest questions here. This is a film about the end of the world, or it‚Äôs a film about the end of a family, a marriage, stability or sanity. Interpret it as you will, though if you want a literal telling of the plot, it‚Äôs broken down in two distinct sections.
The first is called Justine, and is about Kirsten Dunst‚Äôs marriage to Alexander Skarsgard. We enter their world after the wedding, as the guests begin to celebrate the union it becomes clear that something is wrong. The mother of the bride (Charlotte Rampling) can‚Äôt bring herself to say anything nice. No one seems happy for the young marrieds except Justine‚Äôs sister, Claire who has arranged everything perfectly – even the cutting of the cake is timed to the minute.
But the bride‚Äôs depression, or melancholia, starts to topple all of the best laid plans. It‚Äôs leavened with humor, not as morose as Breaking the Waves, by the supporting turns by Charlotte Rampling, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt and Udo Kier as the wedding planner.
The second part is called Claire and takes place more from Gainsbourg‚Äôs point of view. And here, supernatural elements surge as a giant planet of sorts, called Melancholia, makes its way towards earth. What it‚Äôs doing to the geography, the weather, the horses and the people remain a mystery. There is a definite force, and it‚Äôs far beyond anyone‚Äôs ability to control. None of the way this plays out should be spoiled with more detail, so we‚Äôll have to just leave it at that. The bottom line, though, is that when things finally do come to an end it‚Äôs most definitely with a bang, not a whimper.
Melancholia tells two stories where templates for happy endings are upended. Von Trier seems to be saying, quite emphatically, that happy endings have no business being in our myths, movies and other comforting fictions because they do not exist in real life. It is more likely tragedies large and small will ensue, one after the other, with happiness coming in bursts here and there.
This fatalist approach is nothing new, of course, not in Von Trier‚Äôs work, and not in many of the films here, except for the notable exceptions which deliver a healthy dose of pleasure (The Artist, Le Havre). For those of us who do tend to take that view of things, this movie simply nods its head in our direction. See? It all kind of sucks, doesn‚Äôt it. Glimpsing it in Von Trier‚Äôs outlook may give people pause, as they begin to think – what is the point of this movie again? There might not be any point except that it‚Äôs compelling to watch up until the very last burst of genius by a director who seems to enjoy the irritants he slips between our toes.
There are shots in this film that are so breathtaking still frames of them could work as stand-alone art. While this is true of many great films, of course, it is especially true with this one. In one particularly memorable shot, Kirsten Dunst is laid out naked in the blue moonlight of the approaching object. Her cheekbones, perfect breasts and hip bones all catching the ethereal light as her sister Claire gazes upon her before leaving her alone.
Claire is the practical one – the planner, the wife, the mother. Her life is orderly. Her sister Justine‚Äôs is anything but. Justine is falling apart, lives a life of apparent chaos and can‚Äôt seem to land anywhere. She is the wild, out of control planet off its orbit, where Claire is the stable one, staying where‚Äôs supposed to, keeping the solar system running smoothly in counterbalance.
As in Tree of Life, you sense you are dealing with character archetypes here, not real people. As women, Clair and Justine seem to represent opposing pulses of nature that drive the wildness and the chaos. The men seem always wanting to capture heir magic in little bottles, to tame those forces, but are inevitably undone by their spirit, weak in the face of their energy and unmatched by their power.
Kirsten Dunst shines in the role of Justine. Von Trier, with his hand-held camera, is always shooting her from below – and we follow her nubile frame, with her long, thin legs all the way up her body until we rest on her face and there we find the turmoil. She looks as though she‚Äôs aged ten years from the inner pain and she doesn‚Äôt ever release that tension. Dunst has never really been sewn up this tightly.
The churning turmoil in the film is undercut by brief moments of levity. They bubble up from of the characters suddenly and unexpectedly, the same way they do from the writer/director himself, who said in the press conference, ‚ÄúI’d like to talk about my next film, which Kirsten insisted was a porn film. We made this really nice beaver shot.‚Äù
Either way, there seems to be a lot of talk about the end of the world lately. Somehow, the hysteria assumes that the end of the world will come suddenly. True fatalists, however, know that we‚Äôll never get that lucky. Life drags on and on. So we must take our cue ultimately from Samuel Beckett, ‚ÄúI cannot go on. I‚Äôll go on.‚Äù