Touching the Void

In Melancholia, Lars von Trier hives off serenely into the cosmos

by Philip Matthews

Alpha and Omega. By accident or design – and one hopes it was design – the opening and closing night films of the 35th International Christchurch Film Festival (and maybe elsewhere too) made for complementary book-ends. On the first night, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, in which the human scale and individual grief – a nuclear family in suburban Waco, Texas, Malick’s hometown, in the 1950s; a grown son of that family in Texas in the present – were set against or within what you would have to call the cosmic scale: the creation and unfolding of life on Earth. Not for nothing has The Tree of Life been called the Christian 2001, although its opening quote from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? … ”), and its picture of universal order and purpose, are of a different type to Kubrick/Clarke’s vision, which was just as ordered but remains inscrutable to us.

By accident or design: Malick suggests a universe operating by design, divinely ordered; by contrast, in the closing night film – Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – the universe is at best an accident. No one or nothing laid the foundations of the earth, no angels ever shouted for joy.

Melancholia is best understood as the second film in a von Trier series that began with 2009’s Antichrist. On the day of her wedding, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) notices a red star in the sky over the lavish resort where her family have gathered for the reception – Justine’s wealthy brother-in-law and sister, John and Claire (Kiefer Sutherland and Charlotte Gainsbourg) live in and manage the resort. The reception is something of a von Trier reunion: besides Gainsbourg, there is John Hurt (as Justine’s father), Stellan Skarsgaard (as her employer) and Udo Kier (as the wedding planner), plus Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s mother and Alexander Skarsgaard as the groom.

Dunst spends the film’s first half – titled “Justine” – mostly in and occasionally out of her white wedding dress, wrestling with her ambivalence about the marriage, her job, her place in the family. This is all immersive film-making, but without the rigorous commitment to a raw, neo-realist “dogma” (handheld shooting, no unnatural light sources, etc) that formed as a self-conscious school in the mid-90s around the time of von Trier’s not dissimilar – more on that point later – Breaking the Waves. Instead, as in Antichrist, von Trier’s visual style – assisted here by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro – is glossy, deliberately beautiful high-end film-making; in fact, the entire two hour story is told first as a condensed, seven-minute prologue through a series of stills that resemble spreads in luxurious fashion magazines (it might help to know that Justine works in advertising).

For Variety critic Peter Debruge, reviewing Melancholia after its Cannes premiere in May, this opening sequence was reminiscent of the Dream House series by American artist Gregory Crewdson, who staged eerie and highly art-directed apocalyptic scenes in everyday suburbia. This even gives us a New Zealand connection, as one Crewdson work appeared on the cover of Tim Wilson’s apocalyptic novel Their Faces Were Shining – that mysterious shot of Tilda Swinton, stepping out of her car and gazing upwards with a look that could be terror or wonder or disbelief, is a Crewdson moment that resembles von Trier.

Justine’s ambivalence – although that is far too coy a word – becomes self-destructive, and we learn that she has been prone to possibly bipolar episodes. As with Gainsbourg’s “she” in Antichrist, we can assume that Justine is a personification of von Trier’s famous, recent bouts of depression, although she also fits into a pattern of the suffering heroine that has been a von Trier obsession since Breaking the Waves.

As part two – titled “Claire” – opens, Justine is deep in the fog of depression, sleeping for long stretches, barely speaking or eating. She has returned to Claire and John’s resort to recuperate; meanwhile, John, an amateur astronomer, is tracking the slow arc of a planet named Melancholia, which has appeared in the sky and is heading towards Earth (a potentially destructive planet hidden behind the sun – such a great metaphor for depression). Like part one, part two is set entirely in the home and on the grounds of the resort – shot in Sweden – but within a less compressed timeframe. And the planet approaches.

In Antichrist – a more provocative and shocking film than Melancholia – von Trier also invented a new cosmology. Gainsbourg’s character, recovering from grief in a cottage in the woods, with the “help” of her psychiatrist husband (Willem Dafoe), is a student of medieval attitudes to women and imagines a new constellation, based on the Russian folk story of the Three Beggars (a pagan trinity of fox, deer and crow). The film explored – without at all agreeing with – the ways in the Church has seen (female) nature as evil: nature is “Satan’s church”.

But in Melancholia, nature – or the movements of planets and stars – is neither good nor evil, just indifferent. If The Tree of Life is optimistic, religious and redemptive, Melancholia is pessimistic, secular and doomed. No one prays, petitions God or forms doomsday cults. But despite the trappings, there is no science-fiction solution either, no team of rogue scientists or oil drillers out of a Michael Bay movie ready to save the world as soon as someone says the word.

Midway in the schedule between The Tree of Life and Melancholia, the Film Festival programmed Mike Cahill’s low-budget Another Earth. What has been in the air this year? This film seemed almost to blend with the other two: grief over a lost family, the shock and awe of a new planet breaking through the sky. But as indicated by the title, the new planet is really us, a duplicate Earth. At one point, the planet is described as a “cosmic mirror”, which has the sound of Solaris about it.

At first, the new Earth is just a blue light in the night sky. Teenage Rhoda (Brit Marling, who co-wrote with Cahill) is distracted by the blue light while driving and crashes into a car driven by John Burroughs, a composer (William Mapother), killing his wife and son. Four years later, Rhoda comes out of prison and attempts to make amends, approaching John anonymously.

The film is quiet and often undramatic, and those who like to pick holes in plots would probably have a field day – there is a tedious kind of literalist who alerts the internet to “goofs” such as the following, which I swear I have not made up: “Apart from the fact that the gravitational perturbations would have made such a planet’s existence evident a long time ago, the presence of another planet the size of the Earth would be catastrophic at the least, and at the distance shown in posters, cataclysmic.” (All stories must be run past the fact police.) But Another Earth is strongly performed – you might remember Mapother as the bad guy in In The Bedroom – and has the neat, haunting quality of a well-made short story.

It asks: do you believe in second chances? The most haunting aspect might be the discovery that the new planet is not just a mirror or duplicate of Earth, but, from the moment it first appeared in the sky, has been a world in parallel. In other words, that point in time four years ago represented a fork in the road; since then, one sequence of events has happened down here, another up there (it is many-worlds theory, in action). Is John’s family still alive on that other Earth? And the other Rhoda – is she living the life she once expected to?

While imperfect, the film stayed with me for days, not least because of the context. We watched Another Earth – and Melancholia and The Tree of Life and all the rest – in a Hoyts multiplex in suburban north-west Christchurch, as the festival’s regular venue was ruined, far behind the city’s earthquake cordon. Images of destruction and grief seemed relevant and familiar but so did the notion of a second chance. I found myself thinking about a scenario in which another Christchurch – a non-ruined, intact one – had somehow existed in parallel, separating from the real one on September 3, 2010. In that parallel city there were never any earthquakes; our homes, our places of work, our schools, cinemas and – if you’re that way inclined – churches are untouched. I wondered whether that would be a better city than the one we are currently in.

The cheap, sentimental answer is that it would not – that we have learned something from the trauma and adversity of the past 12 months, we have changed and grown and discovered our inner “resilience” – but I doubt there is a single person who would not swap the current, ruined Christchurch for a parallel, untouched one, if it could somehow exist. I wonder if anyone else in the small crowd sitting in the dark, nearly a year after the first earthquake, was thinking the same thing as they watched John and Rhoda contemplate the question: this existence or that one?

At Cannes, Melancholia was overshadowed by inane controversy surrounding its director. Von Trier in Nazi shocker: when asked by a film critic at a press conference about the influence of German Romanticism on his films (the sensational prologue to Melancholia is set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), von Trier launched into a rambling speech about growing up thinking he was Jewish and then discovering he was not – that he may really be a Nazi or at least sympathetic to Hitler. Not that he supported the Second World War, you understand – and on and on he went, digging a deeper and deeper hole.

He later apologised, saying his comments were “unintelligent, ambiguous and needlessly hurtful”. What seems interesting about this minor controversy – and, no, of course von Trier isn’t a secret Nazi – is the way in which it feeds into roughly two decades’ worth of critics and audiences being unwilling to take von Trier seriously and his complicity in that. In other words, he is sometimes his own worst enemy (example: did you know he added the “von” at film school, to jokingly appear noble?). Themes and scenarios in von Trier films might have marked him out as a high modernist successor to Dreyer and Bergman but you can also sense that some other force in him wants to undercut those serious impulses with shockingness and black humour (exhibit A: The Idiots, which can seem sad on one viewing and viciously satirical on another). Like Justine in Melancholia, he can be self-destructive.

Does that make it harder when he wants to be believed? Two years earlier, von Trier outraged Cannes for another reason, one which is worthy of more consideration than the “I’m a Nazi” joke that backfired. He dedicated Antichrist – a film stuffed with physical, spiritual and sexual violence; a film that speaks in horror-movie language, the theological-arthouse Saw – to Andrei Tarkovsky. For marrying that hallowed name to this base content, he was booed and jeered.

But was the Tarkovksy dedication just another provocation or gag, like adding “von” to his name as a student? Or did he actually mean it? The reality is that if you are going to tackle theological material in cinema, Tarkovsky is one of those directors you will have to absorb, challenge or come to terms with (as are Dreyer and Bergman). If the basic point of Antichrist is that, contra centuries of Catholicism, the female body is not the source of all evil then a dedication to Tarkovsky may not be too far off the mark.

In his documentary about Tarkovsky, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, Chris Marker muses on why there is so much nature in Tarkovsky films. Those recurring images of water, horses and fire – the style has influenced Terrence Malick too, and his most experimental and personal film, The Tree of Life, resembles Tarkovsky’s most experimental and personal, The Mirror. The shots of trees, grass, rotting leaves. Marker says of Tarkovsky, “Like the Japanese [he has] a physical relationship to nature. There’s nothing more earthy, more carnal than the work of this reputed mystical film-maker. Maybe because Russian mysticism is not that of Catholics, terrified by nature and the body. Among the Orthodox, nature is respected. The creator is revered through His creation.”

A good friend of Tarkovsky, Marker filmed the Russian director during the making of his final film, The Sacrifice, in Sweden in 1986. When I first saw the trailer for Melancholia, back in about April, I figured this was von Trier’s version of The Sacrifice. In the Tarkovsky film, the threat of nuclear destruction is the cosmic backdrop to a family drama in the foreground. As in Melancholia, a family live in an isolated home and follow news of the possible disaster on the radio. But the main character in The Sacrifice makes a deal with God in the hope of averting disaster.

In Melancholia, there is no one or nothing to pray to or make a deal with. Science fails too. But along with similarities in the story, there are obvious Tarkovskian touches in Melancholia: shots of horses and a coastline are reminiscent of The Sacrifice, while a reproduction of a particular Brueghel painting appears in both the main story and the prologue. Tarkovsky’s love of Brueghel was well-known (“Brueghel is close to Russians and makes a lot of sense to them,” Tarkovsky said in 1969). And it not just any Brueghel painting – it is Hunters in the Snow, which appears in Solaris as a kind of relic or reminder of the lost Earth, the lost home. Its appearance is heavy with nostalgia.

Perhaps von Trier should have dedicated Melancholia to Tarkovsky, rather than Antichrist. But maybe that would be too straight-forward, too predictable – even acceptable. Also, it might be that another of von Trier’s more Tarkovskian films has been hiding in plain sight for 15 years: Breaking The Waves. No one doubted that film had a plainly religious sensibility, with Emily Watson’s unforgettable performance as Bess influenced strongly and obviously by the suffering of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, Renee Maria Falconetti, at the hands of a gang of ugly and bitter men. Watson’s Bess communicates with God just as Joan of Arc did – in a way that suggests madness or at least heresy to everyone else – while von Trier makes it clear that she is not deluded. The landscape stills that break up the film, set to 70s rock, have been described as a God’s eye view (Jethro Tull, Deep Purple – who knew that God had this kind of taste?).

But the most Tarkovskian moment in that film might be the most problematic moment – the very last shot. If you remember, Bess sacrificed herself for her husband, and her body was dropped into the sea from a ship. Then bells ring. You hear them. You also – and this has divided every audience I’ve seen it with – see them. You see bells ringing in the sky.

How do you make sense of this? I think you have to go back to the last chapter of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. In medieval Russia, Rublev witnesses a young man, Boriska, who claims he knows how to make bells – that he has learnt his late father’s art. Boriska casts the bell, which successfully rings – and then he confesses that he never learnt the art, that he was operating on faith alone. Seeing this, Rublev breaks his vow of silence and his great career as an icon painter begins.

It is a basic statement of hope and faith, the impossible or the miraculous – the bells ringing when they should or could not — and when appropriated by von Trier in Breaking the Waves it suggested a form of hope, or maybe just a belief in the value of a resolved ending, that evaporated sometime before the making of Antichrist and Melancholia and has not returned yet, if it ever will.