“It tastes like ashes.”
In Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst takes on the frankly masochistic task of working with Lars Von Trier. The Danish director's work almost exclusively deals with central female characters, who all suffer greatly during the course of the film. Melancholia doesn't degrade it's main character in the same way as Antichrist, or Dogville for that matter; instead the only victim here is the audience.
Justine (Dunst) is a newly-wed attending her wedding reception, where she is met with frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte gainsburg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Here, she plays the role of the happily married couple, but is slowly overcome by her deep rooted depression. The reception plays out as an uncomfortable social commentary of an upper class family, who can barely contain their resentment of one another. As the reception drags on, she drifts in and out, taking a bath one moment and driving out onto a golf course to look mournfully at the stars.
The second part of the film is labelled Claire, and takes place some time after the disastrous wedding reception. By now, Melancholia, a rogue planet first sighted by Justine at the wedding reception, is on a course to pass dangerously close to the Earth. Claire, who in contrast to her sister is happily married and has a son, is worried about its approach and frequently checks online to see about the likelihood of an impact. This section is far more visually striking, as the presence of Melancholia in the sky has a quiet menace all of it's own. The subtle way it's shot makes it a far more terrifying sight than effects laden pictures like Deep Impact and Armageddon.
They are joined again by Justine who has sunk uncontrollably into despair. This is familiar Von Trier territory, as we see a female lead both naked and suffering – one imagines to his absolute delight. Her attitude to Melancholia is more reticent. Confronted with it's approach, her character strips naked and basks in it's glow alongside a lake. This astonishing act of nihilism is the the most striking one of the entire film. However, the problem with this, and Von Trier himself is that he is genuinely committed to this nihilistic outlook.
Take the long scene at the wedding. This is banality posing as a social criticism. It follows a petis bourgeois outlook of hopeless despair at the decadence of the ruling classes. They are presented as disgusting, self centred people. It is only Kirsten Dunst's character who can see the impending catastrophe, and bravely resigns herself to it.
Nihilism in art has a long history, but it is during this period of history that it's gaining ground amongst art-house cinema. Ernst Fischer, an Austrian Marxist, wrote extensively about the history of art, and in particular singled out the nihilistic outlook as a problem of Capitalist society as it enters into crisis. He writes,
“The Nihilist artist is generally not aware that he is, in effect, surrendering into the hands of the capitalist bourgeois world, that in condemning and denying everything he condones that world as a fit setting for universal wretchedness.”
In Von Trier's work, he often goes to extreme's to show the horror and decadence of late bourgeois society. Whether it is in Dogville, where the poverty afflicted inhabitants of a small town turn on a helpless stranger, simply because they can; or Dancer in the Dark, where an immigrant is subjected to humiliation at the hands of her employers. In both works, there is no reflection or analysis. More importantly, there is no humanity. A more capable film-maker, can portray similar social conditions without neglecting the truth in the same way Von Trier does. Ken Loach often deals with situations that are comparably dark, including depression and alcoholism. However, despite the hopelessness
of the situation, the characters in his films are people with which we can sympathise. It is through their experiences that an audience can gain an understanding of a social problem. It is this sense of solidarity with the characters that is missing from the works of Von Trier.
The sheer cynicism of the film's final thesis, put forward by Justine in the final act: that life on Earth is evil and that there isn't any other life out there leads to uncomfortable question: Lars Von Trier, what's the point?
Ultimately, one cannot help but conclude that Von Trier himself agrees with the sentiments expressed by his characters. While some might despair at the apparent social decay caused by the financial crisis, wars and human suffering, others are more optimistic. In both the Arab world and now in the USA, there is cause to be jubilant and to look forward to a new society. Indeed, we can see the beginnings of a new world. Film's like Melancholia will be viewed with intrigue by a future generation who can laugh at the naval gazing of pseudo intellectuals in the death throws of the Capitalist system.
To quote Fischer again,
“And one last word: nihilism carries no obligation”