‘Melancholia’: The Stasis of Despair and the Allure of Rapture

At the end of a short interview included in the Blu-ray extras, director Lars von Trier asserts, with the barest hint of an impish gleam in his eye, that Melancholia has the happiest ending of any film he’s ever made. Now, only a director who has amassed such a notorious reputation for cinematic sadism as he has could, with (mostly) a straight face, go on record with such a ridiculous claim for a film that ends (and also begins) with the destruction of Earth.

But he’s not completely wrong. And if “happiness” isn’t necessarily the exact right word to use in regard to a film (very heavy-handedly) entitled Melancholia, there’s nonetheless a certain cathartic ecstasy that accompanies the grand consummation of the film’s slow motion apocalypse.

And truly, there is a certain indulgent euphoria accompanying the film’s stunning opening sequence, a wordless eight minute overture depicting the final moments of life on Earth, and which may be the best thing von Trier has ever filmed. Set to Wagner’s stately, plaintive “Prelude to Tristan and Isolde”, the sequence is composed of a series of stark, phantasmagoric still-life, or near still-life (in some the characters are nearly imperceptibly moving), scenes which accrete into an enthralling tableaux depicting the stasis of despair and the allure of rapture.

It’s a deliberately dissonant vision, embracing a beautiful cosmic obliteration as the only solution for the crippling, nihilistic depression brought about by the world—a world of evil, a world of loneliness, a world of hopelessness. In other words, a world that deserves to be destroyed. And this is where von Trier, ever the provocateur, tricks you, luring you in with this overwhelming, insidious introduction, perhaps promising some sort of spiritual deliverance at the end–but then smothering you with a black, infinite, all consuming desolation so oppressive that it threatens to suffocate you while the film unfolds, repelling you even while compelling you, against your will, to watch.

There’s an irresistible gravitational potency to the film, mirrored within itself by the pull of the looming, titular rogue planet set on a collision course with Earth. And also like this fictitious gaseous planet, Melancholia is a bloated mass of hot air, grandiose and ridiculous, threatening to fly apart into nothing even as it devours everything in sight. A film at war with itself, it seems to have no intentions beyond indulging its own nihilism—except that it also definitely wants to be about something beyond itself, beyond its inevitable self-immolation. It wants to tell us something important, something vital–it wants so much to mean…and yet means nothing. It wants to be cosmic and universally profound, and yet deeply personal and intimate.

But it shows nothing in the way of engaging narrative, sympathetic characters, or thematic development of any sort. In fact, it goes out of its way to deliberately alienate any sort of conventional inroads an audience has with a film. And yet it wants us to believe in its pessimistic vision, to find the same release in courting annihilation. It just can’t get this message across, except briefly–at the very beginning and the very end–content the rest of the time to wallow in its own inertia. It all becomes so tedious and trying, receding from us as we reach out, closing back in as we give up, wearing down our patience to the breaking point.

But see, that’s the key to unlocking it, the way in (and the way out). The whole thing, in all its contradictory pretensions, taken in its totality, is really just one big thing, and it’s buried in obvious plain sight. It’s right there, in the title quite literally, and then doubled allegorically in the film itself by naming the apocalyptic planet the same thing. Melancholia: there it is. Because the film is not just about depression, a deep rooted, obliterating depression, in all its maddening manifestations. Melancholia is depression, and all its frustration, and exhaustion, and desolation, and tedium, and isolation.

The glacial stasis, the permanent somnambulism, the impossibility of hope, the welcoming of an end with nothing past it. And those few galvanizing moments of ecstasy, when the world just being all too much forces a heightened exultation that only makes the crushing return of despair all the worse, because it really is the end of the world, always, but too slowly, slowing down every second, as if time is being dragged to a stop and even the promise of release into nothingness seems like it will never happened, and this despair will just extend to an infinite horizon.

Melancholia evokes and embodies all this more effectively, and with greater power and accuracy, than any film I know I’ve ever seen about the subject. It’s not clinical in the least, but seeks a lyrical, if not spiritual, path to what is impossible to put into words. If it isn’t all that subtle in its approach and execution… well, von Trier has never been a director who’s had much use for subtlety. Melancholia’s obvious symbolism isn’t all that complex, and its directness is the very seat of its power. It pushes beyond the point where allegory actually can mean anything other than just itself, collapsing into a singularity of such insistent literalness that its own annihilating mania becomes contagious. Which isn’t to say that Melancholia is necessarily a great film (because it’s not), or a bad film, but it is a devastatingly powerful one, once you see it for what it truly is, and why it has to be exactly what it is, and why it can’t be any other way.

In the end, it’s fortunate (and maybe deliberate) that Melancholia is content to sink into a well of listless despair and inaction for most its run time, before snuffing itself out in spectacular fashion in its final moments (again, with Wagner’s score booming in the background). Unlike the ultimate trajectory of the planet Melancholia, the film is not, like some of von Trier’s other films (Breaking the Waves, Dogville), a direct hit. It is not (despite everything I just wrote above) a film of such hopeless pessimism as to actually render one truly depressed in the end—perhaps just the opposite.

I, for one, can’t shake—days after watching the film–the hypnotic exhilaration of what von Trier has accomplished here, making something so transcendently, if momentarily, beautiful out of something so bleak. And so maybe his little joke about happy endings isn’t that far off the mark, and we are meant to see in the saturnine apocalypse of Melancholia an ode to cosmic joy, of a new hope buried and discovered in the inevitable annihilation of everything.

The Blu-ray release of Melancholia is a mixed bag. Technically, the transfer is flawless – in HD the images are so crisp and stark that they seem to pop off the screen in 3D at times (especially during the opening and closing sequences). The sound mix—so crucial to the film’s power—is simply overwhelming: the Wagner prelude, returned to again and again with a relentless insistence that borders on monomania, blares out of the speakers at such a catastrophic volume at times that it threatens to collapse the walls around you (fitting).

Meanwhile, the low level rumble of the approaching planet Melancholia—an ominous thrumming that sound like the very heartbeat of the universe—sounds like its coming at you from all directions at once. If you looked outside, surely you would see the planet itself looming over your neighbors house the moment before it obliterates everything. Needless to say, it’s all a bit much, exactly as it should be.

As far as extras, I wish there were a bit much more–there are only a few, all short. The longest, at 12 minutes, is comprised of interviews with von Trier, and stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. While occasionally enlightening, they all stay mostly at ground level, talking about obvious difficulties of trying to deal with characters who are so frustratingly depressed. Von Trier is mostly quiet on the cosmic themes, closing with some cryptic line about the possible deeper symbolism of the planet Melancholia.

The other features are technical in nature, treating with the meticulously designed opening sequence, and the CGI celestial scenes (including the startling fact that the seemingly simple shot of showing the Earth crashing into Melancholia took 60 days to design!). The final feature, a four minute interview with a Danish astrophysicist about the likelihood of a rogue planet hiding behind the Sun, seems too straight faced to not be tongue in cheek. I wouldn’t put it past von Trier, this last little grim joke.

RATING 7 / 10