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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 17 DECEMBER 2011 — Never has a group of moviegoers wanted to see a bunch of characters destroyed by a hostile planet as badly as they do in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

This may be a measure of the film’s success. If von Trier set out to make an accurate film about depression he has done a fantastic job. On the night of her wedding, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is about to be swallowed by a giant blue planet hiding just behind the sun. It feels like the end of the world. As people around her celebrate, oblivious to the coming disaster, Justine is absorbed into her own dark atmosphere. A gap opens between her and the people around her as ominously and surely as the gap closes between Planet Melancholia and Planet Earth.

It is to Kirsten Dunst’s credit that she makes this metaphor painfully real. Before our eyes she transforms from a lively, playful, creative bride into a harbinger of existential doom. At first it is a slight droop around the eyes — exhaustion, no doubt, from an overplanned wedding party. Then a world-weary glint, a tightening of the lips. Before you know it, she’s off on an orgy of self-destruction, abandoning her doting groom just as they’re undressing for bed, haranguing her protective (if pompous) boss, raping a young stranger in the sand trap of the golf course. 

Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
© 2011 - Magnolia Pictures

If this sounds tiresome, it is. Von Trier gives equal time to the caregivers, Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). At first, John seems testy, Claire nervous. By the end of the movie we understand. Taking care of friends and relatives with severe depression is well worth the effort, and most of it fits into the standard illness picturesque: coaxing the afflicted out of bed, preparing appetizing food, reacclimating the afflicted into the pleasures of the well. But when a depressive mother stands up and embarrasses her daughters and sons-in-law at a wedding, when a horse ride devolves into a hysterical, savage beating: these are the moments that make a caregiver wish, for all their recognition that this is a disease, that the afflicted would just act normal for a change.  There is a reason that depression is classified as a mental illness, and von Trier shows the harsh grating pain of the sane coming up against the crazy. It’s not fun to spend two hours with a mentally ill person. Melancholia is not fun.

What makes the movie bearable is its strange beauty. In an interview with von Trier that my home theater (the Alamo Drafthouse Austin) aired before the film, von Trier described the film’s setting as being just on the edge of being cheesy: tuxedos on golf courses, elegant gothic stone mansions, the Pottery-Barn-catalogue version of being rich. It is. But von Trier suffuses these conventional images with a strange light. They expose their cheesiness by being too perfect: a row of topiary hedges trimmed to an almost-computer-generated cone, with matching computer-generated shadows.  The sea is too blue; the rocks too grey; the candlelit glow of the wedding too warmly limestone beige. It’s the good life on steroids.

Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland
and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia
 © 2011 - Magnolia Pictures

Indeed, the film’s look is thematic. Like an Ibsen play, Melancholia underscores the banality of everyday life in the face of pending disaster. The world looks weird because, to Justine, it is. If the end of the world means the death of wedding planners and 18-hole golf courses, so be it. They were silly little lives anyway. 

But the world also looks beautiful because it’s that way to Claire.  The guardian of family and ritual, she is the one who can weep for the end of the world.  Even as the giant blue planet threatens to engulf them, she cares for horses, sisters, husbands, children.  For her, the beauty is not cheesy; it is ethereal. Even oblivion, that impossibly giant turquoise moon looming just over the horizon, has its own kind of disastrous beauty.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American. She last wrote on Chicano/Latino activist and playwright Herbert Siguenza’s A Weekend with Pablo Picasso for Culturekiosque. 

Headline image: Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
 © 2011 - Magnolia Pictures

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