In Woody Allen's Annie Hall, a preteen Alvy Singer sits in a doctor's office, too depressed to do his homework. "What's the point?" asks Alvy. The dialogue is precise: Alvy says, "The universe is everything. And if it's expanding then someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything." The fear is not death specifically, but the end of everything: nothingness.
In Melancholia, writer-director Lars von Trier expresses the same anxiety, but with Wagnerian grandiosity rather than Allen's comedic specificity. A hidden planet, called Melancholia, threatens to crash into Earth, ending life as we know it. This leads one character to search online for "melancholia death," as if one might truly be able to die of sadness.
In the film's first half, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), are hours late for their own wedding reception. This follows the overture in which von Trier uses music from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, an opera that begins with Isolde, a bride-to-be, wishing for a wave to destroy the ship she's on, killing everyone on it so she won't have to meet her marital fate. Tristan and Isolde was inspired by Schopenhauer, who once wrote that "if suffering is not the first and immediate object of our life, then our existence is the most inexpedient and inappropriate thing in the world." What's the point, indeed.
Justine isn't quite as unhappy about marriage as Isolde, but she would have probably gotten along famously with Schopenhauer. She'll say later of the world, "Nobody will miss it." At her reception, she has trouble focusing on the events at hand, and she keeps checking out, unable to go long without a nap or a good cry.
The lavishness of this wedding reception may seem remote from our experience, but elements of it (the bad parts, in other words) feel universal: bad speeches given haltingly by people forced to speak, and worse ones delivered pompously by those who love the attention. When Justine halfheartedly drops her bouquet from a balcony, people cheer as if they haven't noticed how desultory she is about the tradition.
Von Trier's camera is an all-access one, moving around the dining room, down the halls, into the bedrooms and bathrooms, but it rarely shoots from anyone's perspective; it's a third-party observer, not a participant or a surrogate for any character. The formal proceedings of the reception seem silly when seen from this perspective, but Von Trier is the one staging it. He goes to great lengths to make it beautiful, sending flame-filled paper balloons into the air and lighting everything just so, with warm brown shadows and tender golden hues. There's a wonderful contradiction in this film: If the wedding reception is so meaningless, why execute it so well? If life is meaningless, why make such a beautiful movie? What's the point?
The tones switch to chilly grays in the second half, reflecting the fatalistic outlooks of Justine and von Trier. The house is drained of life and color, and dialogue sometimes echoes off the massive stone walls. What looked in the first half like an idyllic palace has become a useless fortification against Armageddon.
Von Trier's bleakness might seem cheap if he weren't such a master craftsman and unique dramatist, probing big questions and his own neuroses through Justine's depression with a precision and orderliness that sets Melancholia's messier ideas into disturbing relief. To see this clearly, contrast the polish of the reception in Melancholia with the grainy, working-class wedding in von Trier's 1996 breakout, Breaking the Waves.
In fact, contrast all of Melancholia with Breaking the Waves. At the time, von Trier had converted to Catholicism, and with Waves he made a faithful film about faith, in which Emily Watson's Bess gives her life, Christ-like, for her crippled husband. It ends with an image of bells suspended from the clouds: Bess is in heaven, looking down at her husband.
If his last film, Antichrist, weren't evidence enough, von Trier's faith has slipped. In Melancholia there will be only blackness after the apocalypse; there is no mention of God, and certainly no heavenly bells. Melancholia does a great job of observing the way that Justine, her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire's husband (Kiefer Sutherland) prepare for the possibility of catastrophe, dissecting their reactions and juxtaposing them with one another. But in the end all that really matters is Justine telling Claire "I know we're alone." We're all that's out there, and after us there's nothing. Justine, by the way, is clairvoyant, which serves to transform her from a gloomy young person to a prophet of doom.
Fortunately for us, von Trier's bleak outlook is complicated by the head-swimmingly complex film he's made in order to explore it. While he cannot suggest anything hopeful in the lives of his characters (what would be the point?), he does manage to do something positive for the experience of his viewers: Melancholia is the best kind of art-making and exploration. It's a lingering, thorny, beautiful experience that makes our doomed planet and our fickle lives richer for the tiny amount of time we're here to appreciate them.