Dir. Lars von Trier. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
There’s a shot in Melancholia where I felt like waving at the screen and calling Justine (Dunst) companero, as if I were Peter Falk in Wings of Desire. I understood Justine entirely. It’s when she’s sitting on top of a stack of chairs in her wedding dress as her wedding reception, at this point hopelessly eroded into stupidity and excess, winds down. (Now feels like a good time to assure you that I have the fondest memories of my reception, that there was no golf course, and that I could not have been persuaded to leave my wife’s side for a moment longer than necessary.) Her feet dangle from the edge of the chairs. Although the shot is at a distance, we can see that she looks practically blithe. Her face is untroubled, but the past hour of movie make it entirely clear that there is something totally wrong. She arrives comically late to the reception (two hours!) and then insists upon seeing a horse in the stables before she goes in to the party. She wanders out onto the golf course, once to pee, dress spread out like an upside-down shell on the green, and once to nail Tim (Brady Corbet), whose employment is contingent upon getting a slogan out of Justine before the end of the night. She has not spent much time at all at the reception, to be honest; there have been trips upstairs to put her nephew, Leo (Cameron Spurr) to bed, to sit in a bath, to fumble through books. During the speeches, which were not, erm, appropriate to the setting—in her mother’s (Charlotte Rampling), which seems basically impromptu, the thesis is about how bloody loathsome a wedding is—she looked miserable. Claire (Gainsbourg), her sister, brings Justine to her and insists that they don’t have “a scene.” So: all this time later, Justine on her chairs, feet dangling, face blank, feels incredibly right. When someone is so depressed that any action of will feels like some Sisyphean effort, a success even for something silly is a coup. I’m sure it could not have been simple for a woman in such a wedding dress to get up on those chairs, but she’s there, and the way her legs hang off like a child perched on a tree branch is almost carefree; if she stays, so much the better, and if she falls and hurts herself, at least it’ll be somewhere for her mind to go. Many a middle schooler, let alone a grown woman, can tell of the way that pain is a welcome distraction from sadness.
The hopelessness of the night as it turns to gloaming is advanced in increasingly abrupt scenes which are traditional drama. Justine’s brother-in-law, John (Sutherland), paid for the reception and is not getting the appropriate return on investment; Justine’s father (John Hurt), the one person she really wants to talk to, disappears and leaves behind a hastily scrawled note; Justine quits her job when her boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) goes too far; her husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), leaves and takes the promise of wedded life with him when it’s clear that they’ve made a bad mistake. If someone else were making a movie about a wedding gone sour, I imagine these would be the roots of shouting matches tailor-made for the fifteen-second clips they show at the Oscars, or the kind of fine theatrical stuff that ought to remain on stage. In von Trier’s imagination, those are purely moments of fallout, because the worst possible thing has already happened to Justine. She has already been unhappy past the point where it matters any longer, where the damage of that unhappiness has blown out entire circuits and thinned her blood. Kirsten Dunst was a brilliant casting choice not only because she is a brilliant actor, possessed of a liquid ability to change from moment to moment, but because the difference between Kirsten Dunst smiling and Kirsten Dunst frowning is so total. Von Trier gets Dunst’s left side over and over again, which is wise: it’s the side where she has the dimple, and the dimple makes her smile childishly sweet, even innocent. And then she’ll frown. Or she’ll pout. Or she’ll simply look straight on at something. There is no joy on her face in those moments. There’s despair, unless it’s surrender, but then again it might be hopelessness. The why of it all is unimportant. Melancholia is a movie and not a self-help book. Von Trier is not after the logical genesis of Justine’s misery or the verifiable astrophysics of Melancholia’s destructive retrograde motion any more than Bergman was trying to accurately depict how we’re led away from earth after death in The Seventh Seal. Emotional truth is at the center of Melancholia, and it is an emotional truth that most people do not much care to plumb; an individual who hurts cannot be fixed. As Vonnegut’s Bokonon tells us, we “muddily do” until we “bodily bust,” and insofar as Melancholia has a plot, that’s a good summary of it.
It’s been a few days since I’ve watched the movie, and I am still struggling with what I think of its second half. It’s not that in “Claire,” Gainsbourg is any less impressive than Dunst in “Justine,” or that I think the idea of a planet popping out from behind the Sun to obliterate the Earth is uninteresting. It’s a less entertaining section, in large part I think because anxiety is rarely coded as entertaining when women feel it in the movies. (Think about the rapturous “I survived” discourse around Uncut Gems, and think about how much more anxious the idea of everyone dying, especially her must be for Claire in this movie, and think about how few and far between the reviews are that describe Claire’s anxiety as a great hang. Surely there’s something easier to focus on in the personal and concrete threats against Howard than in the broad and existential ones against Claire. But surely there’s also a gendered history of treating women’s anxiety as something to overcome, or as a flaw built into her body, and we are guided by our own language of “hysteria” to hope for it to be over rather than be consumed with the objective power of her fear. I wonder, too, if it’s because women being sad is traditionally more inviting for audiences than women being distraught; this is why I wonder how much better Dunst really is in this movie than Gainsbourg, if at all.) It’s also less entertaining because von Trier eschews the language of the end-of-the-world sci-fi flick absolutely, although this eschewing also makes Melancholia a much better movie than your average end-of-the-world stuff. For one thing, the world flat-out ends in the first five minutes of the picture (a consummation devoutly to be wish’d). For another, this centers the panic of the movie quite firmly on John and Claire, which makes their fear all the more genuine for its seeming scarcity. Leo, largely kept in the dark, and with his eyes shut, until the end comes, contributes little more than his clinging body and a clever tool to measure the size of Melancholia in the sky which Claire reuses again and again with increasingly frightening results. Justine, whose mind has been bleached by unhappiness so long, is more upset about the taste of some meatloaf than she is by the impending doom of the planet. (“It tastes like ashes!” she sobs.) When Claire comes to her with a plan which is her version of acceptance, to sit out on the porch with a glass of wine when the end is nigh, Justine shoots it down with prejudice. What a stupid idea, she says, and if nothing else her misery has prepared her to reject a clichéd, inauthentic, and maudlin way of greeting the end of the world. What Justine ultimately comes up with is a genuinely intimate moment for these two people she cares about, a moment which is as tragic as the end of the world but as personal as holding hands on a hillside about to made decidedly less tranquil.