Danish director Lars von Trier started making waves when he drafted the ‘Dogme 95′ manifesto in forty-five minutes with his friend and fellow film maker, Thomas Vinterberg. The manifesto consisted of a number of rules a film should adhere to if it wants to be a ‘Dogme’ film. For instance: artificial light, special effects and non-diegetic music (music that doesn’t originate from inside the film ‘world’) are prohibited. Through these rules, Vinterberg and Von Trier aimed to create a more natural sort of film making, but the approach proved untenable even for its founding members. Vinterberg said he was ‘guilty’ of covering a window in Festen (1998), which created unnatural lighting. A grievous transgression, I’m sure you will all agree. Nevertheless, the idea of Dogme is incredibly pervasive in Festen, Breaking the Waves (1996), and in Von Trier’s new film, Melancholia (2011). Even though Von Trier deviates even more from the rules he once established. But, how else would you make a film about the end of world? You simply require a small degree of theatrics.
And that is what you get. At least, in the opening and closing moments of the film. Melancholia starts with a series of extreme slow motion shots that give the impression of moving paintings. These introduce a number of the themes, characters, their relationships and problems. Though the futility of it all becomes clear quickly as Melancholia (the eponymous planet on the move) slams into Earth to bring an end to all the misery. It is set to the soothing tones of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (the prelude if I’m not mistaken), which makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up even though the film has barely started. Once we understand that everything is coming to an end, we’re introduced to the film’s first sister, Justine (Kirsten Dunst).
Melancholia is divided into two chapters, one for each sister. In the first chapter we’re witness to Justine’s wedding and much like the bizarre family get together in Festen, it’s a complete disaster. In what seems an attempt to please her family, a deeply depressed Justine agrees to an extravagant wedding that her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), organized for her at a striking estate (very reminiscent of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad). But Justine can’t help but slip deeper into depression. Her sister urges her to smile and asks her if the wedding ‘wasn’t what she wanted’. Meanwhile, the groom (Alexander Skarsgard), clumsily refers to her condition as ‘feeling a bit sad’. Which is well off the mark, but typical for most people’s understanding of the clinically depressed. As the wedding drags on, Melancholia approaches and Justine lets go.
It’s unclear how much time passes between the two chapters. Claire moves her sister to the estate to better care for her. It doesn’t take long for that balance to shift, however. No one turns on the television, but bits of scattered dialogue inform the viewer of Melancholia’s ‘flyby’ of Earth. John (Claire’s husband, played by Kiefer Sutherland) is among those convinced it will pass by harmlessly. Once it becomes clear that it will not, the sisters find themselves abandoned. As Claire becomes more and more hysteric, it is she who turns to Justine for support. Except, Justine embraces what is to come. That’s made abundantly clear when she disrobes and basks in the reflected light of Melancholia, letting herself be loved by the coming apocalypse. She’s as alien as the approaching planet. In scenes like these, Von Trier achieves a dream-like quality through the odd lighting and weather anomalies that are caused by Melancholia. This is hightened enormously by the sister’s isolation in what is already a very surreal setting. The result is a very unique visual style that creates a thoroughly unnerving atmosphere.
In that sense, Melancholia is the polar opposite of a film like Last Night (1998). In that film the world is also about to end, but it is widely talked about on radio and the film documents everyone’s way of saying goodbye. And, where the characters in Last Night embrace life at the very last second, Claire dies crying while Justine is glad to see it all go. In an interview taken at Cannes, Dunst said: ‘the end of the world solves at lot of problems.’ It’s a nihilist attitude, maybe, yet that also makes it oddly beautiful to see the end. I think it’s hard to say whether this is the right way to look at Melancholia, but it’s even harder to see it as life-affirming.