Despite the richness of its possibilities horror always seems to have such a narrow perception of itself. Most people wouldn’t consider Melancholia a horror film, even though horror is its sole subject matter.
We all deal with horror every day. Most of us have just gotten awful good at distracting ourselves from that fact. Able to look the other way from the giant planet that will obliterate everything in time. What is depression then but the inability to look away? To be transfixed by horror to the point that it blocks everything else out, becomes the world Not an undercurrent of life but its overriding theme.
Von Trier has made two horror films before, The Kingdom and Anti Christ, and neither were like this.Both of those films were out and out assaults on the viewer. Full fledged attacks on the viewer’s thresholds of on screen violence and any kind of narrative sense. Melancholia isn’t like that. After the strangely beautiful and horrifying opening, which features imagery that looks like it was pulled directly from Von Trier’s night terrors, awful in the true sense of the word, the film hardly shows anything terrible at all. The film takes on a hushed, almost funeral tone, as is appropriate.
The film is divided into two parts the first set during a wedding reception for Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, held at the manor of her very rich sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsborough. At first Dunst is bubbly, luminescent, but it quickly becomes apparent that she is a woman with some very real problems. It’s a much subtler performance than you would expect from Dunst, at the beginning of the film her mask is so firmly set that you can’t help but mistake it for the real thing. Then it starts to crack, slowly at first and then with increasing inertia. It becomes clear through the interactions with her family that this is a group of people who have done some real damage to each other over the years (This is to be expected as after all they are characters in a Lars Von Trier film).
The second part of the film has Justine returning to her sister’s home after her depression returns full force. This happens to coincide with the news that a new planet has been discovered, followed by the somewhat belated news that said new planet is going to crash into the Earth and destroy it utterly. For the rest of the film it hangs heavily on the horizen (“It looks… friendly” Claire marvels at one moment). This makes little difference to Justine, to truly live with depression is to live every moment waiting for a planet to come out of the sky and crush all live on Earth out of existence.
I’ve never been all that much of a Von Trier fan. All his movies to one degree to another are pranks. While I can’t say that Melancholia is all that different in that regard, there has been a perceptible shift in Von Trier’s point of view. One could hardly call him humanist (though he does draw some remarkably good performances out of the cast. Including Kiefer Sutherland) but it is as though he is genuinely sorry to see the things that his characters are doing to themselves and others this time around. But maybe that is to be expected. In the face of obliteration empathy is all we have.