Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) and the Myth of a Post-apocalyptic World

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I honestly believe that the best word to describe Lars von trier and his body of work is ‘unforgiving’. So far, I’ve watch Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, Dogville, and the latest on the list Melancholia. All of them are ambitious in scope, breaking barriers at the same time building new fragile standards for cinema that he would certainly enjoy being challenged. I’m not really sure whether this is a good thing or not, but being an “unforgiving” filmmaker is being a “boring” filmmaker. The pacing is slow; you are made to stare and linger on images, looking for meanings that may or may not be even there. You feel the need to pay attention, only to find out in the end that your efforts were somewhat wasted. In this sense von Trier is not just an auteur, he is a poet. By showing so little, he is saying so much. He doesn’t feed you your dreams or your nightmares. If fact his films portray what the world appear when wide awake, with all its bareness. After a Lars von Trier movie, it is difficult to know which is which.

First and foremost, Melancholia is a science fiction movie. The story revolves around two sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) just a couple of days before a rogue planet destroys earth. The first part shows the disastrous wedding of the equally disastrous personality of Justine. After one problem after another, the events drive Justine, her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), and the groom, Michael, into frustration. After realizing the weight of recent events, Claire is in the state of depression. The second part deals with the “aftermath” of the wedding and the anticipation of the perceived “fly by” of Melancholia, the planet’s name. Justine’s husband and her son were initially enthusiastic, preparing supplies and a telescope. Claire is however anxious, believing doomsday predictions her husband continuously debunks. In a darkly and tactful manner, the roles of Justine and Claire are reversed in the end.

The science fiction genre, like horror, is a visual genre. The magic of cinema is the soul mate of narratives in these categories. Unfortunately, this is also the reason why the said genres are still much underappreciated. Too many bright lights, too little human drama. Lars von Trier modifies this condition. There are no special gadgets or technological mayhem in the film. There are just people confronting the environment they move in, an environment beyond their control. This is a science fiction movie, but it will not develop a geek following. Science fiction is basically anti-science, a genre that developed in response to the anxieties and alienation of industrialization not to mention the Cold War, risk of Nuclear War. Now, in the 21st century, a new subgenre is emerging and taking the center that is of the apocalyptic narrative, which is basically a post-apocalyptic narrative. The world has “ended”, but there is still life, there is still hope, human are in their “state of nature”, extremely antagonistic but in the end cooperative.

Melancholia shows otherwise. If science fiction is fiction of anxieties, Melancholia is science fiction at its purest. This is no post-apocalyptic world. And with the entire ecological catastrophe going on, this is getting easier and easier to imagine but harder to accept. Melancholia does not only tell what is going to happen, but also what we are doing. A film that can do both things is nothing short of a masterpiece.


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