Not all doomsday movies feature moments of macho heroism in the face of overwhelming danger, as Mark Fraser discovered while watching a recent work by one of modern European cinema’s most idiosyncratic directors.
Warning: this article is one massive spoiler.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) begins at the end – that is, it starts with the total obliteration of humanity as a giant rogue planet collides with, and completely annihilates, the Earth.
It is also about the end of man, being an expose of his spiritual ineptness; not just in the face of this impending catastrophe, but also during the lead up to the event.
Melancholia, as the director himself has alluded to, is a kind of dark chick flick where there is no happy ending. It is also very gender-conscious, firmly putting the master of the human species in his place as he prepares to meet his maker.
If anything, it’s the kind of movie where feminists and neo feminists alike could have a field day picking apart man’s faults as he blunders his way towards the day of reckoning. Their victory, however, would ultimately be a hollow one as, by the time the closing credits roll, there are no winners – only losers.
Following a beautifully surreal and sometimes 2001esque slow motion piece of exposition that concludes with the Earth vanishing from the face of the galaxy, the story flashes back to the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at the ornate 19th Century waterside castle-hotel estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), a night which drastically accelerates the bride’s lingering depression and compounds the impending sense of doom that eventually envelopes her for most of the film.
It all starts awkwardly when the chauffer of their white limousine (Gary Whitaker) is unable to manoeuvre the vehicle along a narrow track leading to the function. In an ill-fated effort to rectify the situation, Michael clumsily takes the wheel, but he too has trouble. Justine then has a turn – again with little success. At this point von Trier cuts to the couple arriving at John and Claire’s on foot, suggesting they have either walked the rest of the way (which is the more likely explanation given the sun has gone down and they are over two hours late) or Justine’s attempt to get the car out of its tight spot eventually worked.
Whatever the case, it’s strike one against the male.
Things seriously spiral downhill from there. Aside from the fact both Claire and John complain about the couple’s lateness, the “most expensive wedding planner on the planet” (an uppity Udo Kier) starts rudely ignoring the bride by childishly putting his hand to the side of his face every time he passes her.
What a tool! Strike two.
Early in the evening Justine notices a red light in the constellation of Scorpio, which turns out to be the star of Antares. Later that night it vanishes. Is this an omen of some sort? For the bride, who later claims that she has some kind of special insight, it is. Unfortunately for the rest of humankind she proves to be correct.
Meanwhile the wedding speeches are, on the whole, quite embarrassing. Justine’s advertising agency boss (and Michael’s best man) Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) starts proceedings by boorishly declaring he is still waiting for some written copy from her. “Where’s my tagline?” he demands. “What happened? Did your emotional life suddenly take over? Did finding the man of your life render you unable to work?” (Ironically, it transpires that this actually is part of the problem.)
Although Jack follows this outburst by magnanimously declaring he has appointed Justine his company’s new art director, he later gets his nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) – who he has just hired – to follow her around so he can jot down the missing tagline when she finally sees fit to blurt it out.
If the lad doesn’t come back with the copy, Jack boasts, he will be “out on his ear”.
What a plonker! Strike three.
Justine’s father Dexter (John Hurt) then further stirs his daughter’s pot by publicly accusing his ex-wife Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) of being domineering.
“What a load of crap,” mum angrily retorts before getting this off her chest: “Justine, if you have any ambition at all, it certainly doesn’t come from your father’s side of the family. Enjoy it while it lasts. I myself hate marriages, especially when it involves some of my closet family members.”
There goes the bride. Strike four.
During a musical lull in proceedings, Justine briefly retreats outside to the estate’s 18-hole golf course, her malaise now seriously setting in. It solidifies when she returns and is confronted by another speech, this time an insipid one from her husband.
“Justine, I love you so much,” Michael declares. “And I never ever dreamed that I would have such a gorgeous wife. I believe I am the luckiest man on Earth. I love you. That’s all I have.”
Really! Was that it? Is this all the groom could muster for his new wife? Did the bride expect something a little more substantial or profound – something less hackneyed, perhaps? Given she is a gun copywriter for an advertising agency, one can safely assume so.
Yawn. Strike five.
Later, during another break from the formal proceedings, Justine cops an earful from an angry John, who reminds her that he has spent a “huge amount of money” on the austere reception.
“You better be goddamn happy,” he growls.
Money talks. Strike six.
By the time the formalities have concluded, Justine has lost all interest – so much so that Claire has to toss the traditional flower bouquet into the crowd for her. She then rejects her husband’s honeymoon advances and leaves their suite, ensuring the marriage will never be officially consummated.
On returning to the group of stragglers, she dances with her father, later pleading with him to stay so they can talk. But he deserts her, presumably to chase a bit of tail called Betty.
Thanks dad. Strike seven.
The only part of the evening Justine seems to come close to enjoying herself is when she forces herself on Tim while they are alone on the golf course.
Later, when the lad is fired by Jack for failing to procure the prized tagline, Justine’s true feelings come to the fore: “I hate you and the firm so deeply that I couldn’t find the words to describe it,” she starts. “You are a despicable, power hungry little man, Jack.”
Ouch! Strike eight.
It’s around this point that the marriage is well and truly annulled when Michael – who blames Justine for its early failure – leaves with his suitcase, deserting his bride in much the same way as her father did.
Strike nine – and not a bad total for the first half.
In the movie’s second movement (assuming one doesn’t count its short prologue as a full-blown act), John carries on this tradition of male uselessness via a form of self-denial that ultimately proves how naive he really is.
The planet Melancholia has just passed Mercury and Venus and is heading towards Earth. By this time Justine has slipped into a deep depression, spending her days asleep and unable to muster the enthusiasm to even take a bath.
While opinion in the household is divided as to whether the two world’s will collide (the sisters suspect they will), John – an amateur astronomer – is convinced that all will be well and promises they are about to witness “the most amazing experience we will have in our life”.
“Sweetheart, you have to trust the scientists,” he tells Claire. “Melancholia is just going to pass right in front of us and it’s going to be the most beautiful sight ever.”
John even encourages their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) to become involved, getting the boy excited by promising him that he can stay up with the adults to watch the imminent passing of the transient planet.
Strike 10 for being a misguided fool.
The next male to err is Little Father (Jesper Christensen), the quietly spoken head servant, who simply fails to turn up to work as Melancholia nears. Although Claire is somewhat perplexed by his unannounced absence, Justine is more sympathetic, noting: “Maybe this is the time that he needs to be with them (his family)”.
As relevant as this observation may be, it’s strike 11 for not calling in sick or making an effort to say goodbye.
When Melancholia finally does pass (it comes close enough to Earth to suck up a bit of its atmosphere, but apparently doesn’t affect the gravitational pull of the Moon) all seems well until John discovers that Claire’s scepticism and Justine’s depression are justified – the “fly by” is in fact returning for a head-on collision.
However, rather than admit to his wife and son that he is wrong – and then spend his last hours with them – John sneaks away and tops himself.
What a coward. Strike 12.
At the end of the day it’s up to the sisters to selflessly come together in their final moments to grant Leo his last wish as Melancholia closes in on Earth. It’s here that von Trier returns to an altered, less stylised version of the film’s beginning, in which the world vanishes, but the female spirit briefly prevails.
Back in 1974, Swiss director Alain Tanner provided an explanation as to why some European film makers had a penchant for making movies with strong female characters.
“When a woman moves a bit, she moves many more things,” he told Cineaste.
“Men have been moving for a long time now without much result.
“In the present situation the structure of society is more affected when a woman moves. Just think, the whole social structure is based on family life. Politically speaking, this is a good reason for the emphasis on women. A more subjective reason is that when you have a two-sided story, it is always a temptation for a male artist to use the woman as an inspiration or muse.”
Certainly this kind of reasoning applies to Melancholia, in which the men not only fail to produce results (Jack and Tim can’t get their tagline; Michael is unable to move Justine in any profound way; a misguided John completely crumbles when faced with the naked truth), but they are pretty much the weaker link of the family unit (Dexter deserts his daughter; Jack seems to enjoy the power he has over his nephew; John – who makes his disdain for Claire’s kin fairly clear throughout the film – ultimately turns his back on his own family by committing suicide).
And as for anyone becoming a muse, von Trier makes sure this doesn’t happen by dismantling a marriage before it has the chance to really start, while turning his only possible candidate (Justine) into a virtual hermit, ensuring that she remains both out of reach and out of touch during most of the film’s second half.
By the end of Melancholia – when the final moments of the Apocalypse is viewed from a different, more personal perspective – all of the patriarchal structures which hitherto have held society together are exposed as failures.
The family is no longer a cohesive unit, but a bitter breeding ground for betrayal, disunity, distrust, dysfunction and disappointment. Given this, it is not surprising that the institution of marriage – in Justine’s mind at least – has become redundant. By refusing to honour her nuptials, she effectively decides to be part of a solution rather than contribute to an ongoing problem.
Meanwhile, science – which in the past has helped humankind conquer nature – is rendered completely useless in the face of such massive adversity. Perhaps for the first time ever, man is confronted with a challenge that he will never be able to overcome, no matter how smart he thinks he is or how many resources he has at his disposal to throw at it.
Even the commonly held manly notion that there is something noble about being a generator of wealth (read employer) is trashed when Justine finds herself repulsed by the arrogant Jack, who can’t help but expose his egotistical delusions as the evening progresses.
Thus, when Justine tells Claire that “the Earth is evil” and “we don’t need to grieve for it”, it is arguable that her fatally pessimistic observation is really a not-so-thinly veiled condemnation of the male hegemony and everything it stands for.
Having said that, another conclusion one could reach after sitting through Melancholia is that having a male dominated hegemony may well outweigh having no hegemony at all.
Written by Mark Fraser
1. See www.melancholiathemovie.com: In the Directors Statement, von Trier suggests it could be construed as a “woman’s film”.
2. In Little Father’s defence there is a power blackout that could possibly have rendered a landline useless; plus there ends up being enough electrical interference in the air which may have thrown mobile phone signals out of whack.
3. In his book The Second World War, historian Anthony Beevor makes a similar observation after describing how French refugees were bombed by German planes as they fled the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. “Once again it was the women who bore the brunt of the disaster and who rose to the occasion with self sacrifice and calm,” he wrote. “The men were the ones in tears of despair.”
Gary Crowdus and Dan Geogakas: “Irony is a Double Edged Weapon” – interview with Alain Tanner in Art, Politics, Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews (Lake View Press, Chicago, 1984 – page 102).
Antony Beevor: The Second World War (Orion Books Ltd, London, 2012 – page 140).