Sooner or later, all of us will leave the planet. Sudden deaths are mixed blessings: there is no lingering pain or long, drawn-out debilitation (giving rise to the growing interest in assisted suicides). Those who do know just what will most likely end their days (largely illnesses or wars) at least have some time to prepare for the inevitable. Only a miracle cure or—literally—dodging a bullet or IED can change the inevitable outcome.
Every so often, the end of the entire planet is forecast (currently set for December 21, 2012). So far, these predictions have all been bogus, although some “believers” in apocalypse by pre-set schedule (dating back to the Book of Revelation—a.k.a. The Apocalypse of John—in the Western world) have either offed themselves or partied to the end of their financial limits (“You can’t take it with you” becoming “There’s no accounts payable no matter where your next life will be”).
What, then, would you do if a previously hidden planet, slipped past its shield (in this case the Sun) and set course for Earth where its overpowering size would destroy the most polluted heavenly body in the Milky Way?
Director/writer Lars von Trier has drawn on his considerable narrative and filmmaking talents and fashioned an intriguing take on one family’s struggle to either rationalize the doomsayers as just more quacks or stoically accept the “End of Days” with maturity, generosity and a wee bit of magic sticks.
In order to accomplish this truly fantastic task, Trier sets the stage with the World According to Justine (Kirsten Dunst is nothing short of astonishing in this deep characterization of a woman who knows more than she cares to but has no qualms about acting on that insider information) and the Curiously Idyllic Life of Claire (playing Justine’s more down-to-earth sister, Charlotte Gainsbourg presents a master class of familial understanding and oh-so-human ability to express real fear).
Lurking in the supporting cast weeds are Justine’s parents (“Part One: Justine” is the ultimate wedding reception from Hell): John Hurt at his customary superb character-revealing “bad dad”—surrounded by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Bettys; Charlotte Rampling is delectably ice cold as the fair-but-cruel mom, Gaby; her wide-eyed nephew, Leo (Cameron Spurr) and scientifically informed, sister-in-law detesting brother-in-law, John (Kieffer Sutherland is at his best during the “silent movie” depiction of his horrid realization that the “fly-by planet” has decided to make one more pass at humanity’s terra firma). At the centre (temporarily) of it all is Michael (stoically done by Alexander Skarsgård), the idealistic groom who has no idea just who he may have married. Also on board are Justine’s over-bearing employer, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), and his very temporary employee/nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) who makes a valiant attempt to capture the long-awaited corporate tag line while having semi-forced-upon intercourse on the, er, 18th hole.
With such a talented cast and fascinating narrative, what could possibly go wrong?
Lobbing over a dozen excerpts (almost exclusively, the famed “Prelude” from Tristan und Isolde—cross-reference below) into the ear at key junctures (the most effective of which sees Justine sunning herself—much to Claire’s astonished, voyeuristic eyes—au natural under the sensual rays of death-planet Melancholia), Trier has attempted to harness the other worldliness of the master’s art to serve his dramatic purpose. That fails on two counts: first, the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’s (Richard Hein, conductor) performance is too frequently untidy, spoiling the effect of tutti chord-changes/pizzicati; second: Wagner’s masterpiece and truly magnificent tale of doomed love has precious little to do with a pending universal collapse from an unstoppable force. If a classic had to be used (there are many accomplished film composers ready to ply their trade for the big screen), a more appropriate choice might have been Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, but—happily/unfortunately—Stanley Kubrick has already rendered that famed opus into the annals of classical rape extraordinaire (2001: A Space Odyssey).
The music that really does work on all planes is played quietly in the background during one of the several awkward dances of the reception: “Strangers in the Night” readily underscores what is taking place in and out of the bridal suite.
It’s an enormous pity Trier didn’t find/commission an overarching score that supported his vision (and that of the hijacked creator’s) rather than relying on “name recognition” (many viewers will have a faint knowledge of the “Prelude” but relatively few will have experienced the entire opera—arguably Wagner’s greatest achievement).
Nonetheless, Melancholia is a film that ought to be seen/heard if only to imagine what could have been. Its own “Prelude” must be viewed and carefully studied by any aspiring filmmaker to begin to understand the dictum: “show it, don’t say it.” JWR