You begin with a series of painterly images brought to shimmering life. They are full motion scenes, but shot in such vivid, high-contrast, high-speed slow motion that for the first moment of each vignette we cannot be sure that we aren’t actually just looking at a still photograph. The images are startling and apocalyptic. They have seemingly no source or connectivity to the things that preceded them, and yet behind them is a kind of existential weight, enhanced by the superb musical composition that accompanies them. What begins as an intimate examination slowly grows to encompass a cosmic scale. And then the fluttering of these seemingly meaningless moments suspended in time comes to a cold, indifferent end.
Where do we go from here? Where will you take us? What we have been shown is already such a masterful and confusing movement that it is jarring when you bring us to the next chapter, the first real chapter. A bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and her handsome groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are in the back of a limo that has become stuck on a tight curve. They are newly married, and there are still the vestiges, the clinging, cottony remnants of their bliss in the air. When they arrive late to their reception Justine glimpses the sky and sees an odd star, seemingly out of place amongst the abyss of constellations.
Throughout the course of her wedding reception we are given hints as to her history and the stigma she struggles with, and at the same time that we are shown the newer, stranger depths which she has begun to plumb. Her husband and family are well acquainted with her bouts of depression. Her husband has even struck upon a plan which will help her in the future when she feels these darker moods.
Yet all around her, even as she smiles at the effort and trouble people have gone to to make the newest chapter of her life a happy one, there is an aurora of encroaching despair. Whenever people point out the reasons why, in this moment, she ought to be happy she tries and fails to smile convincingly. When her husband alludes to the idea of children she halts him. When the time comes to throw the bouquet, to foster another person’s dreams of future happiness, she balks at the action. The concepts of permanence seems to have taken on a darker hue in her eyes.
This reception functions as a study of a person who has lost the ability to see the point in life. Everything ends at some point, and it is only a hope or delusion or an act of faith that allows us to begin in the first place. Justine has lost the ability to hold that transient belief any longer, and as we watch her spiral away from those around her it becomes clear that we’re witnessing something far beyond simple depression.
Years later we see Justine come back to the scene of her reception – the country club owned by her sister Claire’s husband John. She is the logical conclusion to the person we saw earlier. Claire, meanwhile, is suffering from her own set of worries and apprehensions. There is a planet, Melancholia, that is approaching earth. Science and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) say that the planet will not strike Earth, and yet Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) cannot shake the fear of its arrival. John does his best to soothe his wife’s troubled mind, but all of his science and logic cannot fight the gut, reptilian feeling that the end is near.
Claire and Justine spend the rest of your tale espousing their concerns, trying to deal with and understand the approaching doom that both can feel – one innately and certainly; the other only fleetingly and haltingly. They are at different stages of their journey, and neither of them can help but feel the loss of control, the loss of meaning. Certainty is a novelty, and the idea of continuity is a fallacy.
You are a bold and courageous film, Melancholia. You take a simple idea, an elemental theme, and spin it on a canvas at once cosmic and personal. Our life, our very existence, is predicated on only one certainty; one day it will end. Yet some of us can either avert our eyes and live outside of that truth, or become convinced that the end actually won’t come, at least not for now. Those same people, when they find their own existence challenged, can find a salve in the fact that Life itself will continue.These are the people like John who see the evidence and can think about things with remove and clarity.
Then there are those who feel nothing in the face of their own life, or Life in general. They see the cosmic joke of ever beginning. Those are people like Justine, who know on some level what will come, and it taints the world around them painfully. Then there is Claire, pinned agonizingly in the middle, uncertain and afraid, paralyzed.
To be sure you do not truck in subtly. The themes you explore – life, death, existence, meaning, reason – are painted in bold strokes. A wedding and a marriage to symbolize Life and love. An overbearing boss to symbolize professional life, a career, a job. Friends and family to act as narrative-convenient extrapolations of those very ideas. Yet buried beneath these heavy, sweeping gestures is the smaller, personal story of your characters, which is not neglected in spite of the ease with which you could have chosen to do so. Claire and Justine and John are real people, who react in real ways, and who have histories that they live and experience before our eyes. The world may be ending, but these characters may be ending with it, and that is also a tragedy.
You are a kind of strange relative to the film The Tree of Life. You both have entire movements of impressionistic, cosmic import. You both have a deeply personal story to tell, one that is a reflection of the greater human experience. You both envision the end of something, of a life, of all Life, and yet you both come to two very different conclusions regarding the meaning or relevance of that moment. Whereas The Tree of Life finds joy in the mystery, a kind of God in the chaos, you find just that – a question without answers, the only meaning given to it that which we aspire to see.
Claire is of course your center, and Kirsten Dunst turns in a powerful, affecting performance in the role. She carefully modulates the slow shift during the wedding, and then later fully embodies the crippling despair. That we can look at Justine years later and in retrospect perfectly see the seeds of depression gestating within her is a credit to both Dunst’s performance and the entirety of your vision. During her wedding, when paper lanterns float into the sky, luminescent with internal fire and emblazoned with tokens of love and affection scrawled by joyous guests, only she understands the dark, hidden meaning when they slowly dissolve into flames against the backdrop of a cold, black, starry sky. What does she gain from this? Is the knowledge worth the price? Is happiness and love worth the willful ignorance, the delusion, the faith required? And even with all of this knowledge, how will she choose to spend her probable final moments with her family, even in the face of its ultimate meaninglessness?
There will be those who single out your drama, your boldness, your lack of subtly, your commitment to allegorical grandeur, and say that those things are pretentious and laughable (much as they did with The Tree of Life). They will find the scale of your story to be a crutch or an artistic extravagance. Yet I see you for what you really are – a story of personal, existential fear and perception writ large, given the scope that we all feel, and that none of us are willing to articulate. In this way you are a fierce, powerful, ambitious and frightening work of singular vision.
Yours until the end of time,
Brian J. Roan