Planetary Collisions and Other Disasters: Lars von Trier's Crackpocalyptic Melancholia

You've probably heard that Melancholia is depressing and nihilistic — after all, it starts with the world being destroyed, and then rewinds, so that the rest of the film takes place on an Earth we know is doomed.

What you might not have heard, though, is that Melancholia is intermittently hilarious, with a savage black humor. And it's a hauntingly beautiful film in which the end of the world is just one kind of disaster.

Melancholia begins with a slow, operatic scene of destruction, as the planet is crushed and we see the film's main characters frozen in a final moment of time. A horse stumbles and falls. Kirsten Dunst runs in her wedding dress, train behind her. Then later she stands hands out, like an angel, as lightning hits her fingers and dead birds fall from the sky. Most movies about the destruction of the world save the real fireworks for the end, and gratify our love for spectacle and our planetary deathwish.

But Melancholia doesn't give us disaster porn — instead, it gives us disaster erotica.* He glories in it just as much as Roland Emmerich ever did, but with a fraction of the budget he focuses on the beauty of the world ending, and the impact on a handful of people. The whole thing is haunting and sadistic — which could be used to describe the rest of the film, too.

After we see the end of the world, the rest of the movie is divided into two segments, focusing on two sisters, Justine and Claire:

1) Justine is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at Claire's house — and the wedding is a nine thousand car pileup of horribleness. It goes on for hours and hours, and just when you think that things can't get more dreadful, they take another nose dive. Justine basically has a meltdown, while everybody around her does his or her level best to make the situation worse. It's one of the most riveting dramas and one of the funniest comedies I've seen in ages. The wedding is ridiculously expensive, Claire's house is super fancy, and the whole thing is a giant disgrace.

2) It's a while later, and Justine is a heavily medicated basket case, living with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband, Leo (Kiefer Sutherland) at their palatial house. Claire is basically taking care of Justine, who can't even take a bath on her own. Claire, meanwhile, is suffocating in a marriage to Leo, who's an insufferably pompous ass. The approach of a new planet, a "super-Earth" called Melancholia, is just another chance for Leo to prove that he knows everything. Leo is absolutely sure that the planet will pass by Earth harmlessly... until it doesn't.

On one level, Melancholia is contrasting the disaster of Justine's wedding with the disaster of Earth being turned into space dust. But the planetary destruction that frames this movie is also a ginormous context for all the different kinds of vanity and self-delusion we see on screen. True to von Trier form, this film is chock full of misanthropic portrayals of people who are way too high on their own bullshit and torment others as a result.

The slow pacing totally works in this film because it holds on to uncomfortable moments long after you wish they would end. Little touches like Justine's fiance trying desperately to connect with her and comfort her, as she slowly crushes his heart, are milked for every last bit of agony. And every gonzo "I can't believe they went there" moment is similarly viewed with a slow, unflinching gaze. Just watch the scene at left, with its final twist of the knife as Alexander Skarsgård sees what Justine left behind her.

The ensemble cast, especially in the wedding scenes, is absolutely brilliant — you wouldn't think that a slow-motion catastrophe would be so fascinating to watch. John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, as Justine and Claire's crazy parents, are completely committed to going more and more over the top, until you cringe every time one of them comes on screen. And then there's Stellan Skarsgård as Justine's boss, who's psychotically pressuring her to do work during her wedding, siccing a junior ad exec on her. The levels of crazy in this movie would be enough for ten seasons of Jersey Shore.

But if you're a connoisseur of B movies, then you'll especially appreciate the brilliant turn of Udo Kier as the wedding planner in this film. Kier, who's a MVP supporting actor in countless low-budget science fiction epics, is camping it up like never before in this film. Just in case you thought this really was a dead serious look at the human condition, Kier keeps appearing in the corners of the screen doing his most cracktastic performance ever. (Apparently, Kier is a regular in von Trier's movies, and also the godfather of von Trier's daughter, according to Wikipedia.)

And Kirsten Dunst also rocks this movie, in a really demanding and potentially alienating role — she starts out as a beautiful dream girl and successful career woman, who completely self-destructs over the course of one horrible night. And then in the second half of the film, she's practically a vegetable until she slowly comes back to life — re-energized by the impending destruction of the planet. (Check out the clip at left, in which she explains that "nobody will miss" life on Earth when it's gone.) If you've got doubts as to Dunst's acting chops, you should watch this movie and then try to imagine a number of other Hollywood actors trying to make such a damaged character sympathetic.

Melancholia is one of those films that will make you cringe, as you come to identify with characters who are trapped in their own delusions. Dunst's character comes to seem like the only person who's willing to shed all of her falseness, even if it leaves her like a shell of a person. Sure, it's incredibly nihilistic — it's showing how everything we value and puff ourselves up about is transitory and meaningless. It takes a giant planet smashing into our own world to illuminate the meaninglessness of our petty crap. And like I said, what's left is a transitory but very real beauty.

There have been a number of indy artsy movies this year which used science fiction as a backdrop for a small intimate story — Melancholia isn't even the first movie to show another Earth appearing in the sky, since Another Earth did that earlier this year.

The thing that Melancholia does, which none of the year's other indy science fiction-tinged movies have quite managed, is to create a story in which the cosmic and the personal both have weight. The science fictional element in Melancholia isn't just a painted backdrop or a metaphor, it's an essential part of the story. And this film is cosmic, in the sense of commenting on the universe and our place in it.

I saw Melancholia two or three months ago, and what's stuck with me is a sense of gorgeous, horrible imagery of destruction. Plus slow, unrelenting discomfort — the struggles of a few humans, viewed under a gigantic microscope wielded by a cruel observer gazing down from outer space.

Melancholia is in theaters today, and also available on demand.

* I know, I know — the porn/erotica distinction is largely meaningless. But you get what I'm saying.