During my ninth grade history class, we watched a retro public service announcement produced during the Cold War. The video featured a chipper tortoise and a handful of obedient children. With a sing-song voice, the tortoise taught his audience how to protect themselves from atomic warfare: “duck and cover!” The kids were eager to oblige, diving under boxy desks as a mushroom cloud blossomed in the distance. It was obvious to me that there was no chance of Sally or Peter surviving beyond the brick walls of their schoolyard. The government’s attempts to propose a safe-guard against unavoidable destruction was idealistic at best and frivolous at worst.
Lars Von Trier’s version of the world’s demise is not cartoonish but just as hopeless. His latest film, Melancholia, opens with a slow-mo dissolve of our universe. In a fantastic gush of galactic dust and shimmer, Earth collides with the mysterious planet Melancholia. Inhabitants fold under the weight of a universal collapse, yet one girl stands rooted, palms splayed, calmly observing her body’s annihilation.
Beyond the blatant intro spoiler, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is not so serene. She arrives late to her own wedding reception with her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) in tow. Claire, Justine’s sister, (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is there to greet her at the entrance of a sprawling estate. Claire is angry that the couple’s tardiness has disrupted the evening’s elaborate schedule. The mood of the night does not rebound. Justine cannot deliver what is expected of her. Her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and distant despite the happy backdrop. As Justine wanders the grounds, eyes searching the sky, we are left to ponder if she is crazy or a mere vessel for premonitions still held silent by the stars.
Melancholia’s story is divided by juxtapositions. Justine’s perspective soon switches to Claire’s. The characters are complete opposites. Claire is the successful, practical half of the sibling pair. Justine is impulsive and fragile. Differences prove to be grounded in the women’s respective relationship with earth. Justine is a suffering soul and therefore embraces the idea of an end. Conversely, Claire views her environment as a home filled with valid details that make for a complete loss.
Though Melancholia attempts to rise above the standard apocalypse film, the final sentiment emphasized remains the same. It doesn’t matter if it is shouted shrilly or whispered like a prayer. We are all going to die. Von Trier believes our fate is well-deserved. Justine does too, saying, “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” Melancholia has come to wipe out the darkness and subsequent discontent caused by living on a broken planet.
I find Von Trier’s conclusion unsatisfying. The earth does contain a diverse assortment of terrible problems. Our day-to-day existence operates on a timeline we are completely unaware of. Eventually trials will cease. Whether our personal struggles coincide with a universal breakdown remains to be seen. The nagging feeling that life is not as it should be never quite leaves us. However, the planet that is heading in our direction is not here to destroy. On the contrary – it is a projection of restoration and the good things to come.Tags: Alexander Skarsgård, apocalypse, Charlotte Gainsbourg, kirsten dunst, Lars Von Trier, Melancholia, new release