Melancholia: Armageddon, Danish-Style

Melancholia: Armageddon, Danish-Style December 21, 2011

Your family is criminally dysfunctional. You’re a manic depressive. Human life is irreparably evil.  Mankind is alone in the universe. Oh yes–and a rogue planet hurtling toward earth will destroy our world and everything on it in a violent conflagration.

Such is the sunny message of Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s latest unwatchable foray into filmic sadism.  Why a director of his ability would waste his time (and his estimable cast’s talent) testifying so beautifully to the bleakest nihilism, I don’t know.  But please don’t go see it.  I’d rather we not encourage him.

The first half of the film plays out from the perspective of Justine (Kirstin Dunst), an emotionally fragile new bride suffering through her wedding day at the sweeping estate of her brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland, proving to his credit that he is not only and forever Jack Bauer).  Von Trier takes pains to depict her reception as the most opulent social torture, and we (like Justine) want to scramble for the exits after the first toast.

The second half of the film belongs to Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It takes place after Justine’s wedding (and her benighted marriage’s quick dissolution) and tells the story of the planet Melancholia, which, having hidden playfully behind the sun all these years, has begun a death march–er, death slingshot?–towards Earth. John is convinced that our sunny globe will enjoy a gorgeous near-miss, but everyone else is sure the apocalypse is now. Further, it seems as if the only person prepared for the collision is the by-n0w-extremely-mentally-disturbed Justine, whose depression seems perfectly designed to ready her for the cataclysm.

Seldom has there been a more circuitous argument against Prozac.

The New Yorker‘s David Denby claims he knows the film’s message: of mortal life, “Enjoy it while it lasts.”  But it’s hard to find any enjoyment in this sterile exercise. We are given few alluring options for coping with Melancholia‘s relentlessly blighted landscape. Here are the ones the main characters have chosen, or been forced to choose: Justine–mental illness; Claire–obsessive, manic planning; John–filthy wealth; Justine’s mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling)–biting, bitter sarcasm; her father Dexter (John Hurt)–inebriated senility; her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard)–an alienating devotion to business; and her near-husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard)–vampirism. (I’m kidding about that last one, but Alexander probably wishes he stayed in Bon Temps after the nuptial fiasco Justine’s family puts him through.)

If this is life, what’s to enjoy? Bring on the death-planet!

When I used to teach the book of Revelation in my Bible courses, I always asked my students a simple question: why write an apocalypse? Why tell a story of the end of the world? With respect to the last book of the Christian Bible, there are lots of interesting–and ultimately positive–answers:

Perhaps John wrote his apocalypse to spur flagging believers to renewed devotion. Or to covertly express political dissent. Or to convince the unconverted of the serious-ness of a new religious message. Or to give the oppressed hope that the next world will be better than this one.

But von Trier seems to have only one reason for his end-of-the-world parable: to revel in his characters’ total misery.  To feature–and thus force his viewers to swallow–the worst possibilities of the human experience. Thus, Melancholia completes a dark turn in the director’s oeuvre that began with the similarly unwatchable Antichrist (2009).

This is a turn unworthy of such a great director, and one that ought deter us from his next few features. For me, I’m going to watch Armageddon later tonight to get the bad taste out of my mouth. Melancholia vs. Earth?  No thank you.  But Bruce Willis vs. Lars von Trier? Now that’s a battle I’d like to see.


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