I’ve reviewed Todd Solondz’s brutal dissection of the possibility of human contentment (and the facades that mark all our lives) in Happiness. I’ve lauded the transformative power of the existentially challenging final sequence of Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York time and time again. I’ve peered into the nihilistic desperation of Christopher McCandless during the haunting final stretches of Into the Wild. So, it should mean something when I say that perhaps no film has ever presented as powerful an argument for the meaninglessness of life as Lars von Trier’s indie sci-fi drama, Melancholia, a highly flawed picture with moments of astonishing clarity and vision.
I should stop tweeting about the movies I review on Netflix before I write these reviews because I’ve already used up some of the jokes/insights I had into this film but beyond describing Melancholia as Life Is Meaningless: The Movie (Now Shut the Fuck Up About It), I also told a friend that I thought it could have been called Depression: The Movie. Melancholia has many things going for it, but highest of all, it is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of severe clinical depression that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. And the raw details of the hell of chemically induced clinical melancholia (one of two sources of the film’s title) is worth the two and half hour time investment alone.
Broken into two parts (with each part named for one of the film’s two female leads), Melancholia is a peek into the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with a surrealistic montage of slow-motion, seemingly disconnected images of the film’s cast as a large planet collides with Earth and destroys. And from there, we flash back a week prior to Justine’s wedding reception (to True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) at the palatial mansion where Charlotte and her husband John (The Lost Boy‘s Kiefer Sutherland) live.
But, all is not well in the lives of this family. Justine is a self-destructive mess, suffering from severe melancholia and as her wedding reception begins, her brief period of respite is coming to a crashing, cataclysmic close with her mood disorder returning with a vengeance. Her husband is seemingly a good man, but with the presence of her controlling sister, her lecherous father, and her equally depressed mother, Justine has few pillars to rely on, and besides, her illness isn’t simply something that she can just will away.
Compounding this family’s domestic problems is the present of a massive planet, Melancholia, that has been hiding in the sun’s shadow (Lars von Trier understands depression and family resentments; he doesn’t get astronomy or general physics) will be doing a perilously close fly-over into Earth’s orbit. Scientists and Claire’s husband are convinced the planet will simply fly past Earth and do no harm, but we no from the film’s opening sequence that isn’t the case, and the air of an impending apocalypse hangs over the film’s entire proceedings.
I don’t believe that there is any inherent, a priori meaning to life. I suppose I’m an existentialist of the Sartre bent and I believe that we create the meanings of our lives through the actions we take and the values we adhere to. And that is to say that I don’t believe life is without meaning or value. It just doesn’t exist alone in a state of nature. Lars von Trier clearly believes that life is a futile struggle full of nothing but suffering and pain and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, all we’ve endured will mean nothing as we disappear into the nothingness of the ether.
And while I may not agree with Mr. von Trier’s philosophical position, he presents it in stark and convincing terms. Von Trier stacks the deck by placing his story at the end of the world, but he isn’t so cheap as to make that the crux of the argument. Instead, he uses the apocalypse as a way to examine how we deal with the inevitable end of our own lives, particularly when we know the exact moment that it shall arrive. It’s easy to internalize our own mortality when it’s going to happen at some unknown juncture in the future in a way that we can not guess or control. It’s entirely different if we know the exact moment and context of our own demise.
And that raises questions in our mind. If I were to die tomorrow (and I have to drive back to Morgantown in terrible road conditions, so, hey, it’s a possibility), will my life have meant anything? I’ll be dead and I don’t believe in an afterlife so I thankfully wouldn’t have to wrestle with that question, but suddenly, everything I’ve ever been will have no meaning to me. There will be no me. And if, when we die, we cease to be what was the point? And if you argue, “the future of our species,” what’s the point if at some moment, humanity manages to wipe itself out (through nuclear war) or is itself wiped out (aliens/supernova/heat death of the universe)? When life itself ceases to be, what was the point of it ever being in the first place?
And, Mr. von Trier’s aim is to show that life itself is a cruelty that humanity endures because the only other alternative, non-existence, is hard-wired into our genetics as being unpalatable even if its the far more merciful option. The films I mentioned in this review’s first paragraph dealt with nihilism without being nihilistic themselves (except maybe Happiness). Melancholia is the closest I’ve ever come to understand and agreeing with the basic tenets of nihilism as a philosophy. And, even on some level, I suspect I only disagree with Mr. von Trier because the only other option would be too unbearably sad.
Moving past the philosophical implications of the film (which are vast and will likely consume my thoughts for days to come), Melancholia succeeds on other fronts. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film (which is ironic considering Lars von Trier’s status as the founder of the minimalistic Dogme ’95 school of filmmaking), and even though I thought the film’s surrealist opening montage was one of the film’s more glaring flaws, no one can deny how well it’s shot. When Melancholia begins to inch closer and closer to Earth, the film’s otherworldly lighting adds not only to the science fiction feel of the film, but it shines a more than metaphorical light on the truths Claire would like to escape.
And Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a revelation. She’s become something of a running joke to me. Any time I want to bring up a terrible performance in an otherwise great film, I’ll talk about her in Spider-Man 2. In those films, Tobey Maguire’s mask was more expressive and emotional than her. But as Justine, there’s a fearless vulnerability and edge in Kirsten Dunst that I’ve never seen before in her career, and I doubt I’ll ever see again. Her usual air of “What’s happening right now” works great as Justine loses herself further and further in the pits of her crippling depression and alienates and infuriates everyone around her.
And Lars von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better as the beset Claire. At first, Claire seems to be the only person in her family that has it at all together. She runs Justine’s wedding even as Justine seems to be going to great lengths to ruin it. She puts up with her status-obsessed husband who may or may not have a sexual attraction to her sister. But, when existence itself crumbles around her, we quickly learn that Charlotte is even more lost and confused than her sister. At least Justine can face the reality of their situation. And Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvelous job of portraying Claire as her carefully built world explodes in her face.
Despite the brutal existential queries of the film’s second half, it was never as good or focused as the first part which takes place during Justine’s doomed wedding reception. The value of the examination of the destructive nature of Justine’s depression far outweighed the fiery call of nihilistic futility. And, it also doesn’t help that the film’s focus was (even in the superior first part) never particularly tight. There were too many excursions into aspects of character that while perhaps interesting, they weren’t interesting enough to justify their place in the story.
Melancholia isn’t for everyone. My dad considers it one of the worst films that he’s ever forced himself to sit through (though, had he read this review before he watched it, he might have known it wasn’t his cup of tea). Melancholia requires not only a dedication from the viewer to be willing to dive deep into the flaws and impulses of its female heroines but also an ability to not flinch away from the true horrors of the nature of life itself. If that sounds like an intellectually invigorating way to pass your time, then few films will challenge you the way that Melancholia intends to.
Final Score: B+