Melancholia (2011, Lars Von Trier; Cinematographer: Manuel Alberto Claro)
I thought it fitting to follow up the Antichrist still of a subdued, supine, Charlotte Gainsbourg sinking into the earth, with this similar shot from Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, in which Gainsbourg’s character, Claire, frantically attempts to outrun the immensity of her doom, only to discover terrestrial certainty is a horrifying fiction. Whereas Antichrist utilized this imagery to comment on notions of sexual agency, the porousness of so-called terra firma in Melancholia is indicative of a larger, existential despair.
Split into two halves, Melancholia follows Claire and her sister, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, acting circles around her entire, previous filmography), as they prepare for the end of the world. The two women serve as counter points to one another. Claire, logical and controlling, is burdened by her flighty, depression addled sister who, in the film’s first half, suffers a nervous breakdown at her wedding reception, terrified of being constrained by the self-imposed prison of marriage and monogamous love. “I, myself, hate marriages,” toasts the women’s mother (Charlotte Rampling), and hints of Antichrist’s feminist politics flicker through. Allusions to paintings such as John Everett Millais’ Ophelia and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Land of Cockaigne, as well as constant, booming notes from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, underline Justine’s fear that life is nothing more than a suffocating collection of empirical truths that leaves only two options, suicide or madness.
Claire’s terror is that the opposite may be true, that her safe, married resort life, with its eighteen holes of golf and equestrian jaunts, is only the tremulous physical façade of an unknowable existence. What has she built for herself, and why? If melancholia exists, and its course is set for Claire’s resort, what purpose did the resort serve in the first place? Everything she knew was wrong, and in its place an incomprehensible vastness, a daunting freedom.
This is Melancholia, depression, anxiety, and fear manifest, and in the film’s first eight minutes, from Justine opening her eyes to the decimation of the entire planet, everything is laid out with precision. Justine, in her wedding dress, flees the constricting vines of the physical world and gives in to celestial astonishment as her body, refulgent with electricity, proves itself a conduit for the possibility of other worlds. The court-yard, in a brief homage to Renais’ Last Year at Marienbad, defies luminal logic and casts bizarre shadows. Two planets collide, and one is destroyed, towed under, and Claire is, in turn, towed under by the earth she though she comprehended, as the flag for the nineteenth hole waves violently, impossibly, behind her.