Lars von Trier doesn’t just make films. Doesn‘t just tell stories. Doesn’t just portray our reality. Lars makes masterpieces. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes, not really. With Melancholia, finally, he succeeds it again. In a simple way. Without high concept formulas such as two visual layers in Europa, thousands digital cameras capturing the tragic Dancer in the Dark, or Nicole Kidman crossing the [chalk] lines in Dogville. Melancholia is less transgressive – no one will cut the screen illusion with some provocative avant-garde form, cynical line or image.
But so what? Cinema isn’t necessary always about some formal or philosophical innovation (or, shall I say, ornamentation). Cinema has its own history and language; and actually art theoreticians are often left with nothing more but to be jealous of it. Cause good cinema, as well as good film criticism, is often inadequate in the view of Theory.
And thanks god for that.
Melancholia is adequate in the tradition of Cinema with a capital C. It’s inspired by Visconti (Visconti romantic, not Visconti neorealist – I’m a priori sick of all the fake neoneorealists), by Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice. Melancholia is adequate in the tradition of all the directors who believed in Cinema and who tried to make masterpieces – from Antonioni to early Godard. Times are changing (68; 89; 90; 2001), Theory is reacting, and so the notion of masterpiece is of course blurred. Yet I can hardly believe that our interest in Cinema’s heritage today is historical. If so, then we indeed are not cinephiles but art historians (it’s OK, just happens not to be my favorite profession). As the tagline of a Filmidee.it website, run by two Italian cinephile comrades, says: „Cinema is not dead, we are”.
For me, Melancholia is a proof that „cinema is not dead“. Are we?
Justine (Kirsten Dunst) celebrates her wedding, but can’t escape her melancholy. She’s not amused nor by clumsy-yet-romantic toast of her groom, nor by a surprise rise from her employer, PR firm director, nor by non-conformist bitchying of her divorced mother (Charlotte Rampling): “marriage is scary, so run till you can” is her point. Justine doesn’t run, because her despise of hollow society’s rituals can’t be solved by revolting – she’s full of apathy and melancholia, she longs, she waits for a real catastrophe. And catastrophe let it be – the planet Melancholia will approach and demolish Earth. Mankind is doomed to death, just like that: so quick, so pathetic. With Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Prelude off screen.
Yet to have a full story, Justine has a sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She supports all those hollow rituals. It’s she who organized Justine’s wedding and tried to maintain their smiles all the way through it. It’s she who’ll crack up in the face of the catastrophe, because she’s sad to lose all her social life including her rich husband and cute son. She’s sad, not melancholic.
Melancholia is split in two parts, each concentrated on a different sister: Justine and Claire. Social, normal, polite life and its despise, oneness with nature (chaos) and death. The film turns around these two different sisters and their agendas, as if they were two different planets… So which one of them wins? In a way, neither one. There is no right answer in the face of death. And we all live in the face of it, though it might be less evident when we don’t see a huge planet approaching, dancing the death dance.
Thus Melancholia is the most pessimistic of Lars’ works. Often Lars von Trier would finish his pieces in paradox, pervert yet hopeful ways. Breaking the Waves has the bells ringing, which make the sadomasochistic heroine somehow nobler; Dogville fascinates by the macabre spectacle of the revenge. We remain shocked yet with a hope that in this absurd software of life, there might be some virus to transgress it: God, art, primitive morality. But there is no virus for the software of the end of the world. And Lars makes it specifically clear: Justine, who feels and knows things, mentions that the life is only on Earth; and not for long.
Yet the fact that life is absurd doesn’t mean humans won’t look for the meaning of it. Sure they will, thus all these hollow Claire’s rituals. It’s just that these rituals aren’t enough for melancholics. Cause when you always feel the approaching death, you need them bigger. You need Wagner. You need to lay down in the dew, naked. You need pathos. And you need Cinema with a capital C.