Friday, December 23, 2011

The End of the World - According to Lars Von Trier

Melancholia, the latest film from Danish director Lars Von Trier, is a highly original, thought provoking work that calls to mind what Stanley Kubrick accomplished with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); that is, to challenge the viewer to think about our place in the cosmos. Though more conventional (at least on the surface) than Kubrick's opus, Melancholia is no less unsettling a film. It is quite simply, a mesmerizing work that ranks among the finest films of the past several years.

The foundation of the film's story line is that of a young woman named Justine (beautifully portrayed by Kirsten Dunst) who is getting married at a very upscale wedding hosted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). It is John's money, as he constantly reminds both Justine and Claire, that is paying for this over-the top-affair at a lakeside castle, complete with an 18-hole golf course. Everyone is dressed to the nines, champagne flows and it's a special day.

Except that it isn't very meaningful for Justine. Instead of this being the happiest day of her life, it's little more than a distraction in her existence. We sense this even before the wedding sequences, as Von Trier gives us a dazzling prologue - accompanied by the somber strains of the Overture from Wagner's Tristan & Isolde - consisting of images of what is to come in the film. These include one of Justine in her wedding dress, floating down a stream as well as a shot of her running in slow motion through a field, as she is being pulled by plant roots that try to hold her still.

The prologue also shows us a planet colliding with the Earth, so we know what the ending of this film will be, yet realizing the finality of life helps us better understand the motives of the characters we meet. Justine clearly is bothered by something during her wedding; does she know for a fact that the end of the world is coming? As she arrives at the reception, she notices an extremely bright light in the sky and wonders what it is. She is told it is a faraway star, but when she briefly exits the reception hall to look at this light again, Von Trier seems to hint that Justine thinks this is no ordinary light among the heavens.

Justine's point-of-view at the wedding reception is the first part of this film; the second half is told from the viewpoint of Claire. She is much more down to earth than Justine; certainly caring for a husband and a young son Leo (Cameron Spurr), make her existence more based in everyday routines than that of Justine, who left her husband at the end of the reception.

It is during the post-wedding sequences, still at the castle, where Von Trier presents us with the opposing outlooks of the two women. Jack, an astronomer, has now told the women that the star in the sky that Justine saw earlier is in reality a planet that had been previously unseen as it has been hiding behind the sun. This fly-by planet, named Melancholia, is on an orbit that will have it come very close to earth, which mesmerizes Jack, who assures Claire that it will approach very near to earth, but it will not collide.

Yet, we as viewers know better, having seen the prologue and soon both Claire, who had been worried about this possibility and Justine, who seems to have foreseen it, become aware of the impending doom that awaits them and everyone on earth.

While Claire's reaction is one many of us can identify with, it is Justine's thought process about this disaster that confronts us. Von Trier, in several interviews about this film, has been quoted as stating that melancholiacs are better prepared for terrible moments in life, as they are better adjusted for them; it is their way of saying, "I told you so." This is certainly helpful in understanding how Justine remains calm amidst the impending doom. In a nice touch, Von Trier has her walk in the forest with Leo and shape long wooden poles to build a small fortress that the two of them - along with Claire- can sit under as the final chaos occurs. Their fortress will be to no avail against an exploding planet of course, but building it it is a splendid insight into the tranquility Justine has with the end of the world.

So while we know that Justine is serene with this apocalyptic moment, did she actually hope for it to happen? This is a question that goes unanswered and makes this film that much more daring. The end of the world has been the subject of many books and films before; now Von Trier gives us his vision, one that's deeply satisfying, especially in terms of trying to understand the human psyche. Kubrick may have given us a more positive ending with 2001, but the resolution that Von Trier presents in Melancholia is no less confrontational. Like Kubrick's film, Melancholia is a masterwork, one that stays with you for a very long time.

P.S. The use of Wagner's Tristan & Isolde is for me, the finest utilization of classical or neo-classical music in a film since Kubrick used Strauss and Ligeti in 2001. Again, that comparison!

P.P.S. The symbolism of circles in this film. There are the circular shapes of the two planets as well as the circular shape of the lens in a telescope and wine glasses at the reception. There are others, but one small one that I noticed; as the reception draws to a close, Justine tells her father that a room at the castle can be made up for an overnight stay. That room number is 8; this number of course, made of two circles. Yet when Justine goes to visit her father in that room, all she finds is a hand-written note that claims he was offered a ride back to town, meaning there was no need to stay. Could Justine's father also have had a premonition about the end of the world?


  1. Excellent review, Tom, of one of my favorite movies of the year.

    I found myself strangely identifying more with Justine in those closing scenes. A part of me has always been immensely curious about what would happen if the world did, indeed, end. That scene where Justine and Leo are building the fort is at once funny and beautiful, because it seems so absurd, and yet... well, next to running away, it's the most logical thing they could possibly do.

    I fully agree with you that Von Trier's use of Wagner here is on par with Kubrick's usage of Strauss and Ligeti, even though I must confess I didn't even realize the music was Wagner. It's sort of disturbing, considering that Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite -- making me wonder more about those strange remarks Von Trier made at Cannes. But all we can really do is judge the film itself, which certainly doesn't feel like it was directed by "a Jew who is actually a Nazi," as Von Trier so clumsily described himself. That won't stop people from boycotting his films, I suppose, but nevertheless he remains an interesting filmmaker.

  2. Adam:

    Thanks for your excellent comment.

    I agree with you about reviewing the film for what it is. As far as Von Trier's ramblings at Cannes, it's hard to know where he was coming from. On the surface level, his words were disturbing, but there must have been a reason. Let's hope that publicity wasn't that reason, as the film stands on its own as a powerful work. Perhaps Von Trier needs to focus more on filmmaking and not public speaking.