It’s hard not to draw parallels between Melancholia and The Tree of Life, this year’s other contender for the ‘Cosmic Opera’ Academy Award. The similarities are superficial, to do with look and sound rather than intention, but I can imagine both films alienating some audiences in the same way: if you found Terrence Malick’s vision of the world’s creation, soundtracked by the emotive, devotional compositions of Gorecki and Tavener, overwrought, you are likely to find Lars von Trier’s take on its destruction - a haunting series of surreal opening tableaux set to the Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - equally so.
Both directors use these lush, near-psychedelic sequences to frame stories about the family; but, while Malick’s is essentially redemptive, von Trier’s is, as you might expect, so much darker as to be almost Tree of Life‘s bleak reverse. In Melancholia, a dysfunctional upper-class family awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies, but - like Antichrist - does so both knowingly and somewhat clumsily, which will move some viewers to ask, as so often with von Trier, whether the director is on some level toying with his audience and laughing at their expectations of genre and story.
I’m not sure this is the case here. Melancholia‘s take on the End Times is more in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Because it’s von Trier, there is a grim humour at work, but that doesn’t mean he’s unsympathetic or sneery. Take, for example, the film’s first chapter after its Wagnerian intro, which documents the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We expect large family gatherings on film to be tense, but Justine’s depression, which is severe, disabling and barely held in check, makes this a particularly painful one to watch. Yet depression also seems to stand her in good stead when, shortly after her failed wedding, the planet Melancholia draws near. While Claire panics, her sister responds with equanimity - she’s not afraid of annihilation. In fact, the threat of the planet’s approach seems to draw her out of a catatonic episode. Again, there’s a dark irony here, as when Justine scorns Claire’s desperate ideas for a ‘final’ gesture before the planet hits - but it is not at the expense of the characters.
There are classy but rather clichéd performances from Kiefer Sutherland (as Claire’s scientist husband), Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt (as the sisters’ inadequate parents), but the central relationship of the two sisters is well observed, allowing space for Gainsbourg’s more ‘sane’ sibling, who is at turns frustrated, controlling and kind. Von Trier is candid about his own experience of depression, and it probably does take a depressive to portray the condition like this, in all its crippling, self-aggrandising, planet-sized horror. Dunst rises to the challenge well, and she and Gainsbourg work hard to transcend some of the plot’s holes and clunky moments of dialogue.
Opinions on whether they succeed or not will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression.