I have never been a huge admirer of Lars von Trier. His films have always struck me as being both portentous and pretentious. (Two of my least favorite words beginning with the letter “p”.) He is a sort of bargain basement Ingmar Bergmann. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see his latest film, until some of my friends told me they found it depressing, and others said they found it hilarious. This piqued my curiosity, so I went to see it. I did not find it depressing, but I did not quite find it hilarious.
At the beginning of this film, the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is played in its entirety. (Bits and pieces of this music will be played now and then during the rest of the film.) We see dreamlike scenes that foreshadow events in the film’s story.
Part One of this film is titled “Justine”. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from depression, but she nevertheless has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). They arrive late at the reception held at the home of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), who are evidently filthy rich, because they live in an enormous mansion with stables and an eighteen-hole golf course. (The film was shot at Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden.) We’re told that John is a “scientist”. We meet Justine’s father (John Hurt) and mother (Charlotte Rampling). After meeting all of her family, one can see why Justine is depressed, since it would be hard to imagine a more unlikeable group of people, although Justine is no better herself. During the reception, Justine has an attack of depression, with disastrous results. By the time dawn arrives, she has had sex with her boss’s nephew, she has been fired by her boss, and Michael has left her. Although she has gotten hardly any sleep, in the morning she goes horseback riding with her sister through a foggy landscape with Tristan und Isolde playing in the background.
Part Two is titled “Claire”. Some time after the wedding reception, Justine has a mental breakdown, so she goes to live with Claire and John. Justine mopes around and cries a lot. The plot thickens when a rogue planet emerges from behind the sun and heads towards Earth. John, who reminds everyone that he is a scientist, cheerfully asserts that this planet will miss Earth, even though it has the ominous name of “Melancholia”. Claire worries that this might be the end of the world, but Justine seems to welcome this possibility. “The Earth is evil,” she says. “No one will miss it.” Justine and Claire then have a debate over whether there is life in the universe besides that on Earth. (I’m not making this up.) The ever-cheerful Justine takes the “No” position. On the night when Melancholia passes closest to Earth, Justine, John, Claire, and Claire’s son, Leo, sit in their vast (and I mean vast) front yard to watch it. When Claire experiences shortness of breath, John assures her that this is only because Melancholia’s gravity has ripped away part of Earth’s atmosphere, and it will soon pass. (Yeah, this doesn’t make sense to me either.) Before the night is over, it becomes clear that Melancholia is receding from Earth.
Ah, but you can’t have a happy ending in Trierland. The next morning, John looks through his telescope and discovers that Melancholia has reversed course and is now heading towards Earth. (I’m not a physicist, but it seems to me that this would be impossible.) John then goes to the stable and kills himself. Claire finds his body and covers it with hay. She then fixes breakfast for Justine and Leo. Oh, why the hell talk about these people any more? All you really need to know about this film is that it ends with the world being destroyed. We see Justine, Claire and Leo sitting on a hillside, with Melancholia looming in the background. You guessed it, Tristan und Isolde is playing on the soundtrack. Just before Melancholia smashes into the Earth, the volume of the music increases to an almost earsplitting level. You have to actually experience this scene to know what I’m talking about, but this is unintentionally funny. (I think it safe to assume that Trier didn’t mean this to be funny.)
If Trier wanted to make a film about the end of the world, why does he subject us to two hours of unappealing characters saying things like “The Earth is evil”? To try to answer this question, I turned to the ever-helpful Wikipedia. According to the article, “A therapist had told Trier that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen.” Justine is indeed more calm than the other characters, but since all life on Earth is wiped out, it doesn’t make any difference.
It’s too bad that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 isn’t on TV any more. This would be a perfect film for that show.