A sensibility of cruelty, particularly towards women, pervades Lars von Trier’s filmography. In Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the female protagonist is killed; in Dogville, repeatedly raped; in Antichrist, genitally mutilated by herself. But with Melancholia, von Trier zooms past his usual misogyny and misanthropy into the indifferent arms of nihilism. Melancholia views the sudden and inescapable destruction of our planet through the eyes of two sisters, the depressive misanthrope Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the caring, conventional Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the long first half of the film, Justine struggles against her lethargy and hostile disinterest to get through her wedding. The second half takes place soon after the wedding, with Justine convinced, despite scientists’ reassurances to the contrary, that a large planet called Melancholia will hit Earth and looking forward to humankind being wiped out forever. Claire, meanwhile, reacts like a normal human being by being scared shitless and panicking the fuck out. The film’s very pretty and very pretentious introduction reveals that Melancholia does hit Earth, shattering our planet into pieces. This knowledge creates an unremitting sense of futility and fatalism throughout Melancholia‘s two hours, and subtly asks the viewer to side with Justine, the calm prophetess of doom, rather than with Claire, the mother who grieves that her young son will never have the chance to live his life.
But the thing is, it’s extremely difficult to sympathize with Justine unless you’re the type of useless nihilistic asshole whose most ardent desire is to see the world burn. Von Trier has stated that he conceived of Melancholia as an exploration of apocalyptic psychology: How might people react to the news of the imminent deaths of themselves and everyone around them? But the set-up of Justine and Claire as diametrical opposites is so obvious and without ambiguity that they’re hardly characters. Von Trier presents Justine as an enlightened sage, but she’s mostly just an incredibly selfish and cruel person who can barely muster sympathy for anyone beside herself. She puts her new husband through the humiliation of a grandiose wedding and a marriage that she has no interest in participating in, and pointedly mocks her devoted sister after (SPOILER: the latter’s husband kills himself in a fit of despair). If I were Justine’s sister, I might welcome the end of the world too, just so I could avoid spending another second with her.
Claire is a lot more sympathetic a character, but despite Gainsbourg’s superb performance, there’s an unrealness to her as well. Von Trier very well might have wanted to examine apocalyptic psychology, but on which planet? The humans about to be nullified out of existence in Melancholia are barely recognizable as such. Justine and Claire are sisters that not only look nothing alike, one of them speaks with an American accent and the other like a Brit. They live in a real-life castle with a stoic manservant and an 18-hole golf course, and they never, ever leave the estate or invite anyone over (with the exception of the wedding). It’s not at all clear in which country the characters live, or even in what era. With the exception of one brief scene involving the Internet, Melancholia might well have taken place in 1930. Psychological portraits require a minimal level of verisimilitude for viewers to establish identification, but the characters in Melancholia are too archetypal and the setting too indeterminate or remote from normal experience to evoke a sense of lived reality. The final scene of the film, with Justine, Claire, and her son all holding hands as Melancholia hurls towards Earth, is undoubtedly moving, but the overall sense is that of walking past a stranger’s funeral: all the elements of tragedy are there, but you’re a bit scandalized by your own niggling sense of detachment.