Melancholia: Lars von Trier’s Tree of Death

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Christian Geisnaes

Wagner’s Overture for Tristan und Isolde thunders its ominous beauty on the soundtrack, and a blond woman (Kirsten Dunst) in a bridal gown watches anxiously as birds fall dead from the sky. In a farther region of the sky, one planet, named Melancholia, approaches the Earth. On a golf-course green, a second woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) clutches her son. A black horse collapses backward in slow motion. Now our Moon seems to have its own moon: the rogue planet nearing our planet. The blond tries running through a glade, but her feet become entangled in grasping tree roots — or, as she describes it, “woolly yarn.” She raises her arms and wisps of smoke shoot from her fingers. The small planet reaches the Earth, makes impact and craters into it softly, deeply. The impact is less a collision than a celestial mating, a match made in the heavens.

Every Cannes Festival needs a Wow! moment, and the opening few minutes of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia provided the artistic sensation of Cannes 2011. Even as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, this Festival’s other big event, re-created the beginning of the cosmos, so, with similarly spectacular imagery but with a greater emotional resonance, Melancholia begins with the end of the world. It’s as if these two highly esteemed, blithely quirky filmmakers had been assigned the complementary subjects of ontogeny and eschatology, and responded with their grand, distilled visions.

The rest of Melancholia, like the long middle section of The Tree of Life, is devoted to the little people in this hurtling universe, the ants under a microscope. Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg) are sisters: the first a depressive, or in von Trier’s preferred designation a melancholiac, and the second “normal” — though the view of this world-class eccentric is so skewed that he sees normality as a disease, perhaps an epidemic infecting the majority of the population.

Justine, an advertising copywriter, has decided to get married to the naïve Michael (Alexander Starsgård), and Claire, the practical sister, has arranged a sumptuous reception in the banquet hall of a castle, with adjoining golf course. Their roguish father (John Hurt) flirts with several girls named Betty — he calls every girl Betty — while their mother (Charlotte Rampling), long withdrawn from the family, rouses herself to an Ancient Mariner wedding toast: “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Since, as we already know, the world won’t last long, her words carry more prophesy than sarcasm. In fact, Justine’s marriage doesn’t last the night. After fleeing the party for a saving bathtub soak, she can’t consummate her vows; and Michael leaves with his parents.

Justine’s premonition of the planetary catastrophe at first seems a wishful extension of her world view: “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” But the runaway planet looms closer; the stuffy rationalizations of Claire’s husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) ring false; and Justine’s fatalism begins to seem the only sensible response to the end of days. She must agree with in the old Ukrainian proverb, “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed,” and with the John Maynard Keynes aphorism, “In the long run we are all dead.” Justine’s neurosis has well prepared her for the arrival of the all-dead times that surprises everyone else.

Again as with the Malick film, Melancholia is a spiritual autobiography. No question, Justine is von Trier. Nils Thorsen, author of the book The Genius: Lars von Trier’s Life, Films and Phobias, writes that the director “has been haunted by anxieties all through his life, and believed that World War III was breaking out every time he heard an airplane as a boy.” But von Trier finds solace in his affliction. As he said to Thorsen: “My analyst told me that melancholiacs will usually be more level-headed than ordinary people in a disastrous situation, because they can say, ‘What did I tell you?'”… But also because they have nothing to lose. And that was the germ of Melancholia.”

Another von Trier mot: “God may have had fun at creation, but he didn’t really think things through.” The same may be said of Melancholia. It’s a big idea, the end of the world, but not particularly well realized here. In this aspect of his work, von Trier is the anti-Malick. Whereas the characters in The Tree of Life are acutely observed and allowed to reveal their souls by longing glances and their specific location in the natural world — ornery life in every corner of the frame, if you only look for it — the people in Melancholia seem stick figures for the author’s views: that logic is crippling, and disability a special gift. Don’t look up to the stars for signs of life, he says. “Forget it! Look inward.”

As Manuel Alberto Claro’s herky-jerky camera shadow-boxes around the participants at the wedding, they seem ill-at-ease — not within their characters but as actors in the movie. They reveal none of the antic wit that von Trier lets fly in his press conferences, even today’s self-destructive monologue in which he talked himself into saying, “O.K., I’m a Nazi.” One is tempted to blame the gaucherie of the performances on a Danish director putting English dialogue into the mouths of actors of several countries (Sweden, England, the U.S., Germany). But there’s another explanation for the flat or florid line-readings and the inarticulate body language. You’ve seen this clumsy style embodied by the Coneheads, and the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These folks aren’t Earthlings at all. They’re inhabitants of the director’s private alternate planet: von Trieria.

For stretches of the film, von Trieria is as welcome as Siberia. You must stay to the end for a potent payoff, when the tragic magic of the opening scenes is reasserted. If you were to play a game in which you had to pick one movie to take to a desert island when the world is ending, you might well choose Melancholia — its first and last reel.