There are works of art that become emblematic for a certain state-of-mind, like ‘The Scream’ (1893) by Edvard Munch or ‘Lobster and Cat’ by Picasso (1965); and, then, there are artistic productions that will always be associated with a drive to megalomania, however beautiful and perfect—or perhaps precisely because of their obsession with technical perfection. Wagner’s music is one such example, Hitler’s favorite film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, another.
‘Melancholia’ is very likely to fall into this second category.
Its director, Lars von Trier, knows that. In his official statement on the movie, he writes:
“With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades. That much I know. But is that just not another way of expressing defeat? Defeat to the lowest of cinematic common denominators? Romance is abused in all sorts of endlessly dull ways in mainstream products … I am confused now and feel guilty. What have I done? Is it ’exit Trier? I cling to the hope that there may be a bone splinter amid all the cream, that may, after all, crack a fragile tooth … I close my eyes and hope!”
Against this background, Trier’s subsequent comments about ‘being a Nazi’ at a Cannes press conference were not accidental. They were the “bone splinter among all the cream” belatedly injected in an attempt “to crack a fragile tooth” in this movie. One needs that, he writes in the same statement, in order to transform the trivial into a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Lars von Trier missed his chance to do that: ‘Melancholia’ is all-round perfect but plastic (also Trier’s description).
Back to the movie: two sisters, two chapters. Justine and Claire would both count as depressives: Justine, the youngest, is the creative extravagant type working in advertising, who, when depressed, will switch into a self-absorbed melancholic egomaniac, intent on spoiling her own and others’ fun; Claire, the eldest, is trying hard to make everyone happy—on the surface she appears to be the one in control but, in actual fact, she is constantly on the verge of anxiety.
Justine marries and Claire organizes a party for her at her husband’s castle—exquisite, and with an 18-hole golf course (something John, Claire’s husband, who is paying for it all, never forgets to observe). Among the invitees, the parents of the two women: the father is a bon-vivant, the mother is cynical and aggressive—none of the two cares too much about their offspring.
In the middle of the party, Justine slides into one of her moods, disappears, once, twice, then for a third time, the mother decides to take a bath, Claire is intent to keep to the party even if now four hours behind schedule, John wants to throw out the mother, the father is waiting for an opportunity to escape, Justine’s boss wants her to deliver a headline—in brief, there is lots of suppressed aggression. At the end of the evening, the guests depart and so does the groom.
A few months later Justine returns to the castle, kaput, does not even want to take a bath and her favorite dish, meatloaf, tastes like ash. Claire takes her in, wants to care for her, she’s my sister, she tells John, but like her husband, she is more worried about the forthcoming flyby of the planet Melancholia. There will be no collision, John tells Claire, but she doesn’t believe him, and, of course, he is lying. In the final days, then hours, before the planetary collision and the end of life on earth, Justice awakens to a new strength to take care of Claire, who is breaking down, and her son. Needless to say, they all die—amen.
All this against the soundtrack of Wagner’s prelude to ‘Tristan and Isolde’—the same piece, again and again. The camera shifts from perfect slow motion to nervous cuts. The close-ups are what make this movie memorable: fantastic dream-like visions of planets on a collision course, the forest, galloping horses, Justine lying naked next to the lake, fully-dressed in her wedding dress flowing down the stream, or pulling on heavy strings of mud that threaten to drown her. The nervous takes of everything else reflect the lack of concentration displayed by the depressed mind in its ‘normal’ state, i.e. when it is not sliding into nothingness, and will most likely upset your stomach—at least they did mine.
The camera plays magnificently with the concept of size: the limousine which carries the married couple in the opening scene is too big and cannot take a turn; the castle’s solar clock is bigger than life; the pebbles in the bottle are estimated to millions; the party is too much of everything; and the melancholic planet gets bigger the closer it gets—a small star in the beginning, it grows like the moon, it then rises like a manifold of the sun, till it finally smashes onto the earth.
Here also lies an essential feature of depression, namely the tendency to blow everything out of proportion. This is the source of its self- and others-destructiveness, especially, as in the movie, when coupled with megalomania. German romanticism, with Wagner to go, displayed similar destructive elements as we all well know.
The only thing that could have saved this movie and made it into a masterpiece would have been a happy end—snapping out of it rather than diving into it headlong. As it is, it is more like a rollercoaster. Ride it with a strong stomach, otherwise, skip it.