Visually, Melancholia (dir. Lars Von Trier, 2011) is striking. This film opens with images of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) that at first appear to be random photographs but instead we discover they are slowly moving. They don’t make sense initially, but they gather meaning. One that struck me was of Dunst standing in the middle of a green field with birds falling from the skies around her. In another, trees and telephone poles appear to be radiating bursts of energy.
The film is cast in two sections, one concerning Justine’s wedding at a palatial mansion near a golf course, the other set at a palatial mansion near a beach, concerning a heretofore unknown planet passing close to the earth—the planet is named Melancholia and has supposedly hidden behind the sun until it appears at the time of the film.
Despite the fact that in its method and view of things Melancholia is distinctly different from The Tree of Life, there are links. Both regard major questions—the meaning of our lives, mortality, our place in the universe—in the context of personal lives set against major cosmic events—in Mallick’s film this means the birth and development of the universe, in Von Trier’s film it means the destruction of the earth. Mallick allows for some kind of life after death, while Trier does not. The end of the earth means the obliteration of human identity and all life, and as the film would have it the end of the only planet in the universe that harbors life.
Justine and Claire are sisters who have never gotten along. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has settled into a wealthy and conventional life with her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). She is nervous and fearful, and resentful of her needy, troubled sister, but she takes care of Justine when she suffers one of her numerous emotional breakdowns in the film. At points she seems catatonic, at others schizophrenic. She is also a kind of Cassandra who claims to know what others are thinking and that the end of the earth is approaching. Justine in the film’s first half seems to have accepted the prospect of life with an extremely wealthy man. Her wedding is ornately staged, an ostentatious displays of wealth by her new husband’s family. On the evening of her wedding, at the after-wedding dinner, she grows increasingly distracted and detached. She frequently leaves the room, wandering off to drive a golf cart or to comfort her young nephew or to nap or to have sex with a man on a putting green. By the night’s end she has viciously castigated her father-in-law, quarreled with her mother, and ended the marriage that has just begun. Virtually everything that could go wrong with this dinner party does, and Justine is the cause of much (though not all) of the trouble. It’s clear that she is troubled and, like her caustic, bitter mother, not suitable for conventional living.
The film’s second half, entitled “Claire,” shows Justine and Claire and their differing attitudes towards the approach of Melancholia. Claire is terrified the planet will strike the earth, and she frequently reads various prophecies of doom on the Internet. Her husband, an amateur astronomer who looks forward to the approach of the planet as a wondrous event, assures her that nothing will happen. Justine, on the other hand, says little, and tells Claire that she is glad her husband’s reassurance makes her happy. When the planet drifts towards the earth, John commits suicide in the barn, leaving the sisters and the child to confront the end on their own. It is Justine, acquiescent to obliteration, who doesn’t care that her life will soon end, who builds a shelter on a hill and invites Claire and the boy to enter in as the planet massively looms.
The final scene is intensely powerful. The planet is destroyed, the screen transitions into darkness, and the credits begin to roll. The end is the end. This film is aptly named.
In The Tree of Life recurrent images are a kind of symbolic, coded language of thresholds, of entrances and exits, of transformations. In Melancholia they are simply pieces of a puzzle that gradually fall into place.