Sometimes when people get depressed and they give into a little drama and hyperbole, they will often say that their world is ending. As it turns out, Lars Von Trier’s spectacularly beautiful 2011 film Melancholia is a remarkable meditation on depression AND the end of the world.
Melancholia follows the story of the manic depressive Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) as she marries the dashing and well-meaning John (Alexander Skarsgard) in a lavish ceremony at her sister’s private mansion. Over the course of her wedding day, Justine’s mental state declines and the evening ends up being somewhat of a disaster.
A bad wedding reception is a pretty small disaster, of course, compared to the literal end of the world class disaster of a rogue planet (named Melancholia) that is on a course that could cause it to crash into Earth. As Justine’s straight-laced sister and uptight brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) try to get her back on track, the ominous-yet-beautiful blue planet gets larger and larger in the sky.
Von Trier’s movie eschews all the standard end of the world movie cliches: the panicked masses, the crying newsreaders, the plucky love story about holding on against the odds. Justine’s family is rich enough that they have their own private estate and so the film’s second arc plays out in near isolation. In fact, the only way you know that something is amiss is that as Melancholia approaches, the butler opts not to come to work.
The film has a great cast and wonderful performances, anchored by Dunst (I had a hard time typing that, but it’s true). At its outset, Justine is absolutely radiant and over time we have to watch her unravel little by little as her stability falters. And as a viewer, you find yourself caring about what happens to them, but then catch yourself wondering, “Wow, I hope she’s okay, but I guess that doesn’t really matter, because THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END!”
And that right there is the crux of Melancholia. It posits that all our human hand-wringing — our loves, despairs, intrigues – our whole lives are pointless and finite. This Captain Bringdown philosophy is in complete opposition to the other “big question” film of 2011: Terrance Mallick’s The Tree of Life. The two of which form a wonderful duo for compare-contrast discussions. Both films are stunningly beautiful and address “the point” of human existence. And where Mallick finds a humanistic and ultimately optimistic answer, Von Trier finds nothing but ashes and dust. If you haven’t watched either of these films, I suggest you get a good bottle of bourbon and do a mind-stretching double feature.
After viewing, I find it amazing and appalling that Melancholia was completely ignored by the Academy Awards last year (the film itself, the actors, the production). Melancholia was as ambitious as any film I’ve seen and I thought it was a tremendous achievement. I might like it even more than The Tree of Life, which I loved. But maybe that’s just because I’m feeling a little depressed today.