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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton




Directed by Lars Von Trier (2011)

Wedding dress designers, I imagine, have it in their brief to stitch together a confection of such apparent fluffy lightness that it seems to carry the bride on a cloud of white through her lovely day.

In reality wedding dresses are probably heavy and cumbersome. Not that I’ve ever worn one, but Justine (Kirsten Dunst) certainly gives that impression as she lugs her improbable frock wearily through the long first half of Melancholia.

It’s gravity that’s the problem, of course, dragging us back to nature however hard we try to escape. Melancholia tells that story in just about every scene.

Because their elegant stretch limousine is too long to negotiate a tight bend Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive two hours late for their own wedding reception at the remote country seat of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and hubby John (Kiefer Sutherland).

Claire is attempting to lift her unhappy family out of their gloom by the power of a meticulously organised party, a frivolity contrived out of a detailed itinerary and, as John mentions, “a huge amount of money”. But the sisters’ bitterly cynical mother (Charlotte Rampling) is having none of it while their father (John Hurt) has already made his own escape into a child-like fantasy where everyone is called Betty.

As the wedding party stumbles on, the happy couple are painfully torn apart, unable to keep their promises to each other for more than a moment. Delicate Chinese lanterns carrying hopes and best wishes are launched into the upper atmosphere and Justine is dragged down into a profound depression. “I smile and I smile and I smile,” she protests, but beneath that smile, beneath that dress, all is rotten.

In the second half we return to find her depression even deeper. Gravity has her in such a grip that she’s unable to move, her heavy lids and lips lifted only by the nostalgic aroma of Claire’s meatloaf. And even that “tastes of dust”.

Claire, meanwhile, is worried about a different Melancholia, a surprise planet that’s been hiding behind the sun and is on collision course for the Earth.

Now you might think such a far-fetched sci-fi conceit would detract from the drama. But it works. Actually I reckon it’s just about feasible. We’ve found a lot of new planets lately and a really really eccentric orbit could do it. Once again, it’s down to gravity.

Melancholia grows in the sky, an appropriately blue moon casting a second moon shadow across the formal gardens of the house. Its gravitational pull sucks at the air and sends the weather into surreal convulsions. Nature turns in on itself, consuming the fragile work of human beings.

The 18-hole golf course of which John is so proud (in fact Von Trier has added, playfully, a 19th hole) is rendered absurd, a fragile gesture of orderliness against the tumult.

The ascent of Melancholia also seems to draw Justine out of her despair, assuming her mother’s cynicism as she disses Claire’s requests to meet the end with a glass of wine on the terrace, but also a far surer grasp of the kind of symbolic order that may, momentarily, stand up to nature’s chaos.

At the end, the very end, Von Trier gives us just that much hope in humanity, and no more. There is also his film-making, though that’s not to everyone’s taste, and Melancholia is relatively restrained for him, as much as colliding worlds can exhibit restraint.

Dwelling on exquistely balanced images that evoke almost the entire history of visual art it is a truly painterly work. And its beauty takes your breath away like a passing planet.

October 10, 2011

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