This is the way the world ends, according to Lars von Trier, and it’s a bit like When Worlds Collide as directed by someone who’s seen Winter Light a few too many times. When it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, certain critics viewed Melancholia as the perfect complement to (or antidote for, take your pick) Terrence Malick’s transcendentalist, grasp-exceeding The Tree of Life. This was, of course, in the days before Melancholia’s considerable merits were abruptly eclipsed by the notoriety of a von Trier press conference gone horribly awry, resulting in the director’s being declared persona non grata in perpetuity by festival officials.
Both films boast awe-inspiring images of vast interstellar spaces, and doomsday scenarios involving interplanetary collision. (At least, I think that’s what Malick is getting at with that ending…) Where Malick reaches somewhat clumsily for affirmation, a cosmic benediction on mortality and bereavement, von Trier rubs our noses in negativity. Put another way, both films ask their dramatis personae the same baseline question: How do you propose to meet the prospect of annihilation? Malick’s characters address their rhapsodic appeals for clemency to an unseen higher power, bide their time in limbo while waiting for the final curtain call. Hardly a stranger to charges of moral nihilism, von Trier has one character propose in regard to the particulars of end-of-days etiquette: “Why don’t we meet on the fucking toilet?”
Like most von Trier films, Melancholia’s structural floor plan is rigidly schematized, a formalist straitjacket inside which its doomed characters are granted a modicum of room to writhe. An astounding eight-minute opening, set to Wagner’s erotic-funereal prelude to Tristan and Isolde, unveils a series of slow-motion tableaux, intimating the contours of the apocalypse to come: birds plummet from the sky, a black stallion collapses beneath the Northern Lights, a runaway bride trudges through swampy morass while liana clutch at her dress, blackened leaves fall across Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow (a nod to Andrei Tarkovsky, who incorporated this painting into several films), all ending with a massive planet colliding with our own. Von Trier’s images revel in painterly precision, a glossy sheen reminiscent of Antichrist’s sudsy monochrome opening, and in stark opposition to the unsteady handheld camerawork throughout the rest of the film.
Melancholia’s first act careens past, an often droll but never quite uproarious comedy of manners, more or less a distaff version of Thomas Vinterberg’s astringent The Celebration, that follows newlywed Justine (named, not coincidentally, after one of the Marquis de Sade’s most put-upon protagonists) through one of the least successful wedding receptions since Paddy Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair. Trapped like a fly in amber by the reception’s decorously stultifying rituals, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) can find no safe harbor in the midst of parental bickering (John Hurt plays her hapless womanizing father, Charlotte Rampling her acid-tongued mother), an overbearing employer (Stellan Skarsgård) boorishly insisting that his star copywriter crap out a tagline before the night’s through, and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) coming on like a passive-aggressive drill sergeant.
Justine’s petty stabs at rebellion are limited in scope: In a fit of pique, she rearranges the books in the family library from displaying sharp-edged modernist pieces to warmly humane classicism, and later randomly ruts with her boss’s nephew (Brady Corbet), a clueless schmuck assigned to trail along until she coughs up that tagline. When she does finally muster the gumption to tell the big boss off, she ends up losing both job and husband. Skarsgård’s reaction to his kiss-off, a take-two plate smash, provides an amusing grace note.
The film’s second act unravels like Strindberg on barbiturates, a particularly forlorn chamber play. Justine, practically catatonic, returns to the family manse for safekeeping, while a bright star glimpsed earlier turns out to be the rogue planet Melancholia on a collision course with the Earth. In this way, Justine and Melancholia stand in for each other. When Justine suddenly and viciously starts beating her favorite horse, the camera pans upward, as though her actions stood under the planet’s baleful influence. The one thing a depressive is truly good at, anticipating the worst, now works in Justine’s favor. As the planet approaches, Claire frets and waxes hysterical, and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), once the voice of scientific reason emblematized by his fancy telescope, commits suicide in the stables.
Ever the gadfly, von Trier introduces several crude artifacts meant to show up the uselessness of modern technology: a stick-and-wire contraption for judging Melancholia’s relative distance, and the “magic cave,” a paltry lean-to assembled from tree branches, that Justine builds to shelter Claire and her young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Neither newfangled gizmos nor primitive magic, however, can ultimately elude extinction in von Trier’s pitiless worldview. Melancholia’s remarkable last image, an uncanny admixture of radiant beauty and ghastly holocaust, remains one of the most forceful visions of finality I’ve ever seen.
DP Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography tends toward the same schematization as the film, the first half awash in warm oranges and yellows (though, as the wedding party deteriorates, the yellows jaundice), while the latter half is dominated by steely blues and somber grays. The prelude’s high-speed camerawork yields the most indelible images, though Lars von Trier doesn’t shy away from odd moments of lyricism, like the launch of the sky lanterns, or the astonishing vision of the planet Melancholia rising over the sea. Magnolia’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is impeccable, capturing the visual splendors and jerky handheld camerawork with equal precision. As you might expect from von Trier, his end-of-days film isn’t particularly demanding on the sound design, lacking bombast and bomb blast, and so the 5.1 Master Audio track gets the most use delivering subtle effects and spreading around Wagner’s exquisite music.
Slight but solid, this fistful of featurettes offers tantalizing glimpses into Melancholia’s conception and production. The most illuminating, "Special Effects," walks you through certain scenes from storyboard to in-camera raw footage, subsequent CGI work and, ultimately, the finished product. Visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth claims there’s nothing in Melancholia that isn’t real, and to back it up he includes home video he shot while on a trip to Iceland to collect raw footage of the aurora borealis. "About Melancholia" lets von Trier expound upon the psychological background of the film, namely his own depressive tendencies, and how he sees the sisters as two sides of the same coin, as well as two aspects of his own inner state. Von Trier is joined by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who gloss their characters’ motivation and background, and psychologist Irene Oestrich, who affirms the film’s portrait of melancholia (a "lifestyle" choice, as she puts it, whereas manic depression is a clinical diagnosis). In "The Visual Style," von Trier and DP Manuel Alberto Claro discuss Melancholia’s visual palette, the use of the handheld camera, and von Trier’s interest in capturing images that are based in accident or somehow flawed. "The Universe" features astrophysicist Michael Linden discussing the statistical possibility of the film’s doomsday device (very, very low) and waxing philosophical on science’s final inability to provide anything resembling The Truth. The HDNet piece is nothing more than a trailer intercut with more talk from von Trier and Dunst.
Bang and whimper all rolled up into one, Lars von Trier’s dolorous Melancholia gets a glorious Blu-ray transfer from Magnolia.