Bergman on Mars: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

On the way out of Lars von Trier’s new film Melancholia, a slightly dazed patron asked me and my friends what the whole thing was about. “It was about a director who’s a depressed asshole and wanted to make a movie about himself,” I said. Well, I got that, the man replied. But what else was it about? “Everything and nothing” is a tempting answer. One can see it as an expression of von Trier’s own crippling depression, embodied in the spectacle of a limp, lifeless Kirsten Dunst being dragged to and draped on the bathtub by her patient sibling (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The director’s wife has said that such scenes were based on her own experience of dealing with her husband’s debilitating angst. It could be seen as an ode to the films of Ingmar Bergman, such as Persona and The Silence, along with other bright/dark sibling binaries throughout film and literature (more on this later). It could also be seen as an allegory of ecological catastrophe, as it depicts humanity blindly fumbling, despite its best science, into an event that destroys life on Earth. Although von Trier does not seem like the kind of director to bonk audiences over the head with a climate change message movie, it is easy to interpret the film in this light.

What we do have is an ambitious, rigidly despondent, self-consciously and overbearingly important film about the end of the world. I have avoided von Trier’s movies ever since Breaking the Waves first set critics’ hearts alight, as the director’s well-known penchant for grinding fatalism and human degradation never seemed like my idea of time well spent. Yet the von Trier embargo met its match in Melancholia’s audacious premise—a mysterious planet is discovered that was “hiding behind the sun” and is now somehow hurtling toward Earth, leaving various depressed humans to contemplate the possibility of their absolute annihilation. I have a weakness for tales of the apocalypse, and Melancholia promised to go all-in in a way most other films and novels did not—not simply by ending the world with a nuclear holocaust or disease or some other calamity that makes the world uninhabitable for human life, but actually destroying the Earth by smashing it into another planet—sundering the ground rules that seem the most unalterable, like the orbits of planets. Go big or go home.

The first part of the film consists of a wedding party a la Rachel Getting Married—all awkwardness and simmering resentments and dynamics of dysfunction, with John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, and Charlotte Rampling turning in excellent performances as the self-interested atoms that orbit the sisters Dunst and Gainsbourg. Throughout, Dunst tries to disguise the fact that she regards her new husband as a good-natured dunce and the rest of her family and friends as conceited hobbits who refuse to recognize that she is staring into the abyss. No one comprehends her deep fear and dread, and few can even cope with it. In the second part of the film, Dunst is divorced, unemployed, and completely incapable of basic day-to-day function, coming to the country estate of her sister’s rich husband (Keifer Sutherland) to convalesce from severe depression. But the arrival of the mysterious “fly-by” planet is slated for a few days from then; know-it-all aristocrat Sutherland assures everyone that the best scientists are convinced the planet will come close to Earth but not collide with it.It is a bit of a flip of the climate change script, then, since the scientific community today is certain that ecological crisis is likely to make human life much more difficult to sustain but most of us go about our business as if this is not the case. In Melancholia, the scientists (according to Sutherland, the voice of masculine science and rationality, anyway) expect that humanity will dodge the bullet. That astronomy and physics and the Pentagon and NASA could be not-quite-sure whether a gigantic planet headed our direction would simply graze the Earth or destroy it is hard to believe—part of the suspension of disbelief, perhaps, includes accepting that an evil nemesis of the Earth had been floating around our very own solar system yet somehow eluded detection. The isolation of the family in their rural manor seems to make the absurdity of this unpredicted demise more believable. The viewer senses that the family has little contact with a world that should have been girding itself for a possible apocalypse.

As a result, von Trier is able to let the film unfold as the characters’ unique, idiosyncratic responses not just to their own mortality but the entire erasure of human existence. Dunst goes from being a dysfunctional depressive to a kind of calm prophet of the meaningless void—once a bride who was terrified of life, she becomes enchanted with the fast-approaching planet that promises total destruction, the cessation of life. “We are alone,” she declares in her new role as Cassandra—a character who is somehow endowed with supernatural powers of awareness and insight but who also expresses total certainty that there is no God, no meaning, no consciousness anywhere else in the universe. “Life on earth is evil,” she says, and it needs to be destroyed. As the sensible sister and responsible mother, Gainsbourg is unmoved by the assertion that all life ought to be destroyed, yet the filmmaker gives every indication that Dunst the nihlist has the better part of the argument.

Most end-of-the-world movies are about mortality writ large. They force characters to rethink the value of every moment, as in the familiar hypothetical, “What would you do you would do if you knew you only had a day to live?” Often, the prospect of the end prompts characters to strike out in daring ways, getting ordinary people to do extraordinary things that everyday life otherwise would not allow (Armageddon, Deep Impact, 2012).

In this case, Dunst’s character takes to lying naked in the forest at night, bathed in the glow of her bewitching suitor, the only thing in the universe that seems to understand her. Her love for the planet Melancholia appears to be the perfect synthesis of death and sex, an exclamation point on von Trier’s message that death is preferable to life. Death is honest and certain, but life is full of deception and contingency. Another film that tapped into a similar sense of dread was Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), yet that movie buzzed with a reverence for life, arguably espousing a kind of pro-life, pro-family message—a world without the sound of children playing was a dreary and destructive one indeed, and any prospect that life may go on was a cause for cheer.

Not so in Melancholia. The whole idea of introducing more lives and consciousnesses into this ecologically, socially, politically, morally fucked world seems to be a fool’s errand at best, a malicious deceit at worst. The script’s near-total disregard for the only child in the film, who blankly stumbles from one seriously disturbing family/ontological crisis to the next, underscores this general indifference toward the future. (“The future,” of course, is a bourgeois conceit.)

Other apocalyptic films have also handled the prospect of species-wide mortality differently. Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), for instance, refused to engage the question of why the world was ending at all, in much the same way as Melancholia eschews specifics; it was known and accepted by all that the world was going to end at midnight on a certain night, with no need to explain to viewers why this was happening. Yet the characters in the film sought to make the most of life while it lasted, each in his or her different ways, with sex or drugs or music or family.

In contrast, Dunst’s character does not hesitate to tell her sister, who has tirelessly cared for her despite nonstop intransigence and total disregard, that her wish to drink wine and await the end in the courtyard is “shit.” In the face of annihilation, it’s not only art and religion and science that lose their relevance—so do compassion, reciprocity, and basic human decency. Such qualities mattered little to Dunst earlier in the film, before the end of humanity became apparent, and they count for nothing at all once the end is near. Mortality provides a pretext for regarding all humane considerations as meaningless piffle—a take that might look like a good bargain for a fatally depressed narcissicist like the director.

Von Trier, of course, is dipping deep into the well of Bergmania for the film, which gradually transposes Dunst and Gainsbourg’s blonde/brunette/destructive/responsible binary over the course of the story, as Dunst’s melodramatic depression mutates into an embrace of the apocalypse, even as Gainsbourg’s composure starts to fray. The transformation evokes Bergman’s 1966 avant-garde classic Persona, in which a similar light/dark duo morph into each other in the course of sexual psychodrama. Bergman’s hallmarks of dread, bitterness, family dysfunction, oppressive close-up shots of brooding and agonized faces, clear contrasts of dark and light (clothes, hair, décor), all are present here, in a kind of sci-fi marriage of Persona and contemporary ecological anxieties.

Curiously, Melancholia seems to recall an altogether more grounded Bergman picture at least as much as Persona. Winter Light was the second in the faith trilogy that included Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, and Bergman considered it the best of his films. This understated, 1963 character study followed Tomas, a Swedish minister who could not shake his own doubts about the existence of God and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. When a congregant comes to Tomas to discuss his worries of an atomic war, the pastor could not help but admit that he had no answers—he could not really believe in God, because people’s cruelty to one another was impossible to explain otherwise.

The same cold, godless, unfeeling world may appear in both Winter Light and Melancholia, yet the protagonist in the former struggles to square his gut feeling with the beliefs he wishes to have about the world, and his own desire to help others. In Melancholia, Dunst’s character thinks only of herself—her own lack of nurturing or attention from her mother and father, her fear, her dread, her superior knowledge of the meaninglessness of life, which she is all too happy to dispense to her suffering sister, because the consequences just don’t matter. Characters do not need to be likable, and they certainly do not need to be responsible or considerate—but von Trier fails by giving his characters only the agenda of reinforcing his sackcloth pessimism. He may be aping Bergman in many ways, but he does not seem to feel a need to pause long enough to give his characters any sense of responsibility, guilt, or moral depth that would force them to contemplate the meaning of their actions, even in the face of the ultimate extinction of Earth and the human race. Meaning, ultimately, is just a luxury—superfluous, fleeting, and not worth making Really Important Films™ about.

All that said, Melancholia still means something. Its creator may insist that the abyss is the only thing worth staring into, but at least he offers the viewer a lovely abyss to look at. Early on, when Dunst’s simple-minded groom tries to cheer her up on their wedding night by talking about an orchard he had just bought, where they can sit under an apple tree whenever she’s “feeling sad,” it’s clear that he just doesn’t get it. Sitting beneath a tree in a pastoral landscape and watching the sun set is not the sort of thing that does much for Dunst or the director. The beauty of the natural world cannot not provide a happiness, even a fleeting one, in the face of unremitting misery and inevitable destruction. The world von Trier creates on the screen suits this morbid attitude beautifully—the film’s ominous tone is unrelenting, towering, intimidating, and sticks with the viewer long after viewing. His Earth is creepy and sinister, where everything from the horses to the forest to the palatial estate where the characters live (Sweden’s Tjolöholm Castle) feels imbued with a malevolent spirit.

The evilness of this world is hard to shake. Though Dunst insists that “life is only on Earth, and not for long,” with no other consciousness anywhere else to redeem it, some other kind of dark force is palpable in the film. There appears to be something else there, even though the characters reject any transcendent beauty or purpose in a lonely, empty universe. It is a haunted world, without anything to haunt it. Along with Dunst and Gainsbourg’s carefully observed performances, this unsettling vision of the Earth nearly offsets the film’s leaden pace and the burden of its own self-importance. Almost.