Mental illness is very difficult to portray on screen, but when it’s done well – in this film or Take Shelter, a very similar film in many ways, or Rachel Getting Married – it can be quite affecting. However, Von Trier seems to be suggesting that mental illness gives us some kind of superior insight into issues that those not suffering from the illness cannot see.
And while I’m willing to grant that with regard to autism and other mental handicaps, this may be true, it is manifestly not true with regard to depression and bi-polar, and other mental illnesses. (To further harp on this, it drives me crazy, as someone who has never suffered from depression, that everyone suffering from depression thinks depression is universal when they depict in art. But anyway…) And I have a hard time accepting this in a film.
With Take Shelter, I was willing to suspend my disbelief, for reasons I cannot quite articulate, and because of its similarity to a film I loved, The Last Wave. But with Melancholia I am not so easily convinced.
So the overture is pretty unnecessary except to get us through Part 1. And I say this because Part I appears to exist only to explain Dunst’s behaviour in Part II. And frankly, that isn’t enough of a reason for Part I to exist. And that’s a shame, because I think Part I is probably a pretty good movie in and of itself, in the way Rachel Getting Married depicted metal illness at a wedding, only this time the bride is crazy. (Honestly, Part I is probably a pretty great movie by itself.)
But then Part II comes along and explains the overture. And we get the idea that suddenly Dunst is very sane when the world is ending. And that might be compelling, but before that we get all this Science Schmience nonsense, which reminds me of Von Trier’s anti-science streak from his TV show, The Kingdom. And we get lots of “Emotional instincts are more valuable than calculations” reactionism.
And frankly, I am left thinking that there are two separate films here: one which I probably would have liked – the wedding scenes – and one which I might have appreciated had it been more self-contained and had it been more convincing with its mental-illness-as-prophecy theme, which has kind of been done to death at this point.
PS: Though I can indeed accept the mental-illness-as-prophecy story line and grant that a couple of pretty great movies have been made of it, and I recognize that there is some kind of human need to have these fears and tell these stories, in this day and age of science dial, I really do worry about the impact of films like this. Because Von Trier is utterly wrong about emotional instincts being more true than science when it comes to the universe, but many people agree with him. And that is a major sociopolitical problem at the moment.