April 11, 2021

Pursuer and pursued – Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’

Well aware of all the hype whirling around the impending arrival of Melancholia, I went in expecting to be disappointed. Would it live up to everything I hoped it would be?

It wasn’t what I was expecting somehow, which doesn’t mean it was better or worse, simply different. Does that mean Lars von Trier continues to elude attempts to pin down his work, or indeed his persona? Only time will tell.

There was a maze-like quality to the structure that I found more interesting than the emotions played out on the surface – there’s a hauntingly voyeuristic shot of the bride stalking about the grounds at night, having left her new husband to roam the gardens. He is watching her from above, and you can sense a vast emotional distance between them. Plagued by depression, Kirsten Dunst pulls off an accurate portrayal of someone whose senses have been numbed, and whose temper is swelled by sudden flashes of anger and self-pity. On more than one occasion, her character Justine bursts forth with words so cutting and hurtful, yet Dunst manages to conceal any emotion from her eyes: a magnificent performance.

Alternating between being the pursuer and the pursued, Justine finds herself tailed by a young and innocent boy, who follows her from room to room. Her crass, money-hungry employer has hired his nephew to tease an advertising tagline from her, but she sees elements of her own sorrow in him. Quiet and vulnerable, the nephew finds himself the victim of both his uncle’s persistence, and of Justine’s erratic mood swings as he tries in vain to coax a moment of inspiration from her. Both nephew and bride appear like pawns; for all Justine’s wilfulness, she seems superfluous to much of the wedding reception, brought out of her isolation only for brief formal appearances such as the cutting of the cake.

The extravagant wedding reception falters as family rifts emerge; the bride’s mother, separated from her husband, does not believe in marriage, and does not hesitate in her telling the guests how she feels about all the pomp and ceremony. Her fuming father, played by John Hurt, tries to throw her out, and there is a lovely cyclical quality in one scene where he furiously packs up his estranged wife’s suitcases and throws them out of the door, only for an attendant to retrieve them and take them upstairs again. The characters spend much of their time wandering inside and then outside, and I find myself trying to unravel the significance of this beyond a notion that the film is ‘trying to assert independence and find freedom in the restrictions of the ritual of marriage’, which seems an appropriate message given the mother’s character and actions.

Melancholia is undoubtedly more subtle than most apocalyptic films.  The mist which envelops much of the grounds echoes the tension and doubt seeping through each of the characters’ lives, as relationships become strained, and emotions lurch from one end of the spectrum (hope and love) to the other (pain and despair).

In Part II of the film, Justine’s sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, slowly becomes more and more caught up in her own imaginings, which are frequently dismissed as nonsense by her self-assured husband. Ever-practical, which is no doubt a trait I attribute more to Gainsbourg’s demeanour than anything else, Claire rapidly begins to unravel as the planet draws nearer. As the planet ‘Melancholia’ breaches the Earth’s atmosphere, and with it their bubble of denial, hailstones begin to fall. Claire enters a blind panic and tries to flee the impending disaster with her bewildered son in a golf buggy. Seemingly ludicrous from the comfort of our cinema seats, but if you were to imagine a planet heading towards Earth today, the roads would be packed.

In the final scene, Justine’s heart softens. We see her building a ‘house’ from sticks, as a means to protect her nephew as they wait, frightened, for death to take them.

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