The genius of the movie is in its power to resist substantial narrative temptations. As individuals deal with emotional unrest in a situation overwhelmed by a dramatic family history, an astronomical occurrence slowly begins to unfold in their backdrop – a rogue planet called Melancholia, which has passed from behind the sun and is running parallel with Earth’s orbit, creates unspoken tension in an excited but jittery populace as an uncertainty in the proximity of its movement towards our world is brought to light. The Hollywood machine would see this premise as fertile ground for a big-budgeted summer blockbuster – and indeed, as seen by the likes of Roland Emmerich in movies like “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” there have been obvious capitalizations on the approach. But von Trier is audacious enough to reduce this detail to a mere intimidating suggestion for most of the two-hour endeavor, dangling it as only a momentary event of permanence in the faces of players who may find their own extinction easier to deal with then enduring the consequences of their tragic lives. The impulse is refreshing, and displays an effective level of restraint even by the standards of a director who has had no problem in revealing all for his movie cameras.
The leads are sisters: Justine and Claire (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg), who occupy one another’s company in differing stretches of predicament with the same outlook, which is that neither is very engaged by the circumstances of life. At the opening of the picture, they share close quarters at a wedding party that is small and isolated, but on the grounds of an overreaching estate that seems out of budget for their social graces. The wedding belongs to Justine, who is marrying the man she loves, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), but is not nearly as enthusiastic as most brides would be on the day of their nuptials. We can empathize with her outlook: during the toasting ceremony of her wedding reception, public arguments ensue between her estranged parents Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and Dexter (John Hurt), and the air thickens with a harsh sense of foreshadowing.
The movie is divided into two parts, much like von Trier’s previous film “Antichrist” was split into isolated chapters. The first half uses Justine as the launch point, revealing a character whose smiles and outward cheer in rooms of people are just masks hiding a deep-seeded misery. Her sister Claire is a bit more upbeat, engaging in social parley that comes off as lively, and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) stands in the sidelines as if alarmed by his own overbearing cynicism. In the second half, the uneasy atmosphere of the wedding party has drained the remaining energy in both siblings: Claire’s persona shifts to one of sadness laced with anxiety, and Justine has accepted her depression with such passive resolve that it reduces her to blank stares and remarks of unsympathetic doom.
Simultaneous to these observations, John, who is (we guess) an astronomer, begins dealing with his own mental unraveling at the prospect of this rogue planet – which is seen first as a bright dot in the sky and then increases in mass day after day – bearing uncertain prospects. The planet is scheduled to pass beside Earth’s orbit over the course of a clear night (this is shown in a scene so eerily quiet and evocative that even Kubrick would have envied it), but John refuses to elude to his immediate family of eager observers of the clout associated with the event: if they are lucky, it will glide by them and continue on its merry trek through the solar system, but if our gravitational field is too great, the planet may potentially double back and implode with ours. That unnerving prospect adds weight to an emotional atmosphere already coagulated by its own unforgiving melancholy, but at these stages of sadness, characters see it not necessarily as a tragedy, but as a passage to relief.
All of this is executed to a level of dexterity that is more indicative of great skill and vision than any of the director’s past endeavors. Clearly inspired by the silent suggestive power of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films (in this case, perhaps “Solaris” more than others), von Trier marries his perceptive efforts with subtle nods to a variety of other sources – in particular, the painting “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais, which inspires the image of Justine in a wedding dress being carried along a river current. The special effects are clean but not overbearing, and exhibit respect for the faultless subtlety contained in the images of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Much like this film’s predecessor, which utilized opera in its opening scenes, the movie’s prologue also plays like an isolated overture of key images extracted from the narrative, and uses Wagner’s music from “Tristan and Isolde” to set its tone. The dialogue in the early scenes is skilled in the way it chooses to reveal only fragments of a conflict, forcing the camera to concentrate on human faces for reaction shots in order to fill in any gaps of missing insight. And the movie’s critical final scene, which could have been overblown in the hands of most directors, is so dreamy in its restraint that it emerges as the most distinctive of its kind: an end-of-the-world shot that cares nothing about large buildings or falling landmarks, but about simple human faces resolved to an unchangeable fate.
Von Trier has made a handful of important films over the past twenty years, and in nearly all cases has inspired impassioned responses in his audience on the basis of deviating away from foundations of a genre’s objectives for emotionally-dire aspirations. In “Dancer in the Dark,” his desire in making a straight Hollywood musical is superseded by a tragic narrative about the failure of the American Dream. In “Antichrist,” one of the most gloomy movie experiences I have ever had, vague hints of a horror film concept are quickly glossed over by the prospect of evil overtaking grieving human souls through dramatic (and even exploitative) means. It was perhaps no revelation to us, after enduring some of these endeavors, to hear that he slipped into his own deep depression after time, and then chose filmmaking to be his therapy in dealing with those personal struggles. If “Antichrist” showed us the façade of von Trier laced in nihilism and rage, then “Melancholia” represents the stage of recovery in which acceptance has birthed an inner inspiration. The material is no less heavy, but violent visuals and torture are replaced here with silence and striking images, and the movie waltzes between moods with more feeling than we expect. At a time when movies are persuaded by the idea of revealing all for the sake of momentary satisfaction, here is a thoughtful, precise endeavor that finds resonance in small increments, and does so to a level of passion that haunts us long after the credits have rolled.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama (US); 2011; Rated R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language; Running Time: 130 Minutes
Kirsten Dunst: Justine
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Claire
Alexander Skarsgard: Michael
Brady Corbet: Tim
Caerom Spurr: Leo
Charlotte Rampling: Gaby
Kiefer Sutherland: John
John Hurt: Dexter
Stellan Skarsgard: Jack
Produced by Bettina Brokemper, Remi Burah, Jerone Clement, Madeleine Ekman, Tomas Eskilsson, Meta Louise Foldager, Peter Garde, Marianne Jul Hansen, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Lars Jonsson, Katarina Krave, Michael Reilhac, Marianne Slot and Louise Vesth; Directed and written by Lars von Trier