One of the hallmarks of a depressed mind is what Travis Bickle called “morbid self-attention.” Perhaps that explains why the depressed mind behind Melancholia—the film that Lars von Trier was supposedly trying to promote during his foot-in-mouth outbreak at Cannes this year—is so acute at describing the condition, as well as the delusions that always creep in its wake, and yet pedestrian in his handling of so much else. The flesh on her face brittle, as if, on top of those exemplary cheekbones, dishwater was coursing through paper veins, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) chokes on tears, as well as on meatloaf, which, in her state, tastes like ashes; she cannot even let her anxieties steep in a hot bath without her sister’s assistance. Earlier, on her wedding night, she can—but only while the guests are waiting for her to cut the cake. Though bluntly written, and slightly overplayed by Kiefer Sutherland, as John, Justine’s pretench swain of a brother-in-law, there’s a prickly, honest scene in which John has his dolorous in-law, whose lavish reception he funded, promise to be happy, for the sake of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). This is a promise no one can keep, really—but especially not Justine. To be melancholy is to be emotionally paralyzed; the shortcomings of the will and the problems of the world mesh together like the junkers in a demolition derby, and you feel as if you’re behind each wheel. When someone as beautiful as Dunst is overtaken by despair, it underlines the ineffability of the soul; the halo of glamour, mislaid though it might be, is backlit by mystery. The actress has down pat the way the afflicted cast their glances in multiple directions at once. All too often, the real world is filtered from that field of vision, as if it were hidden behind a pane of pain.
Dunst’s performance aside, the movie itself seems a little sealed off. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), Trier juxtaposed Björk’s bleak existence with the escapism of Hollywood musicals; here, Justine’s Pre-Raphaelite princess fantasies hardly contrast with the jet-set profligacy of her “real” world. Even though the limousines have Pennsylvania plates, John’s ancestral castle, where Justine’s wedding reception is held—judging from the the topiary, Marienbad has been retrofitted as a driving range, though its one-percenter clientele is still in zomboid circulation—was shot in Sweden. (In Vladimir Nabokov’s slim, wonderful novel Pnin, a pompous nonconformist—read: Vladimir Nabokov—calls melancholia a “bourgeois” affliction. Here, it seems, depression comes with a much heftier price tag.) The delocalized setting, the faceless guests in their Armanis and ice, the Bruegel and the Wagner, the casting of Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as the bride’s—thank God!—separated parents, are all so foundational to the European art house that Trier’s attempts at contemporary realism, viz Rachel Getting Married, resonate unevenly. All the more so because they’re thinly conceived. There’s no way to accept Justine as a whiz at advertising; or Stellan Skarsgård, as her boss, bullying her into inspiration in the midst of her holy matrimony; or her blank-slate groom (Alexander Skarsgård), whom she immediately cheats on with a random pischer—she’s too fickle to consummate her vows. And for all the cheddar he cheesed on these nuptials, couldn’t John have hired a better band? In air this refined, how could “La Bamba” on a keyboard even exist?
I should probably mention that Melancholia is not only the title, but also the name that some cutup at NASA has given to a planet on an improbable course to collide with Earth during the film’s second half. (This sapphire bulb has, if nothing else, a more metal name than Pandora.) We get a glimpse of it early on, in a prelude—or, maybe, premonition—that precedes Part I, the wedding sequence, which is named after Justine—whose own name is somewhat tackily lifted from de Sade. The hypnotic lentor of this preview is astounding—dead fowl fall from the heavens and, in the heavens, two C.G. globes perform an interstellar waltz, neither of which certain if the other is leading. (It’s almost too astounding, because its intensity goes unequaled until the end.) We can tell this is the tempo that Justine perceives life to be playing at because she’s hitched to a smog of gray yarn, which she later describes as her figurative ball-and-chain. And, since we see serpents of electricity flutter from her fingertips, we know she’s got the power. Not the power to zap enemies, like the emperor in Return of the Jedi, but to face the impending apocalypse. John, swaddled in silk suits and faith in reason, denies it; the scientists say, or so he says, it ain’t gonna happen. But Justine intuits the end, accepts it, and claims “The Earth is evil … We don’t need to grieve for it.” Claire, for whom Part II is named, is as damaged as her sibling, but in a different way; she wants to ring in the end-times as one would the new year, with a glass of wine on the balcony. Maybe a round of Cranium. Her indulgence in the worldly and material seems to be, in Trier’s view, a lethal form of repression. Fatalism is pragmatism: Trier’s trying to convert us. As Claire whimpers, Justine, still as the Buddha, embraces the blaze.